MELBOURNE—There are days when you play really well, as Venus Williams did in her 6-1, 6-0 first-round win here. Then there are days when you come down to earth, when nothing is working quite as well as it did a couple of days ago, or even a couple of hours ago. Yet you still have to win. That’s what Williams’s 6-3, 6-3 victory over Alize Cornet was today. A win.
Williams wasn’t sharp. She hit 17 winners against 26 unforced errors, made just 53 percent of her first serves, and double-faulted five times. Fortunately for her, Cornet, with five winners and 28 errors, was worse. Williams would hit one good forehand only to follow it with a swing volley that landed 10 feet long. But she kept manufacturing points, doing what she had to do, forcing her way forward. Her 10 winning points in 16 net approaches was a big part of the difference tonight.
But forget about tonight. Williams’ victory means that the first blockbuster of the tournament has arrived: Venus vs. Maria Sharapova, likely in a Friday night encounter. In WTA matches, Sharapova leads their head to head 4-3, though others have Venus ahead 5-4, with two wins in events in Hong Kong. Either way, they don’t have a whole lot of recent history against each other. Three of their seven matches took place in 2004 and 2005; Sharapova won their only WTA contest since 2009, on clay in Rome last year, 6-4, 6-3.
Based on form from the last year, Sharapova, ranked No. 2, is the clear favorite over Venus at No. 26. The same goes for recent play—Sharapova is an almost excessively sharp 24-0 in games played thus far in Melbourne. And if you want to throw in history at this tournament, that goes to Maria, too. She won it in 2008 and reached the final last year; Venus has never won it. On the plus side for her, she's done it before.
Venus can’t afford tonight's errors and double faults and middling service percentage against Sharapova, whose return is a weapon. The 32-year-old American will have to do something special, maybe something surprising, to turn back the clock again.