Toronto: Flipkens d. V. Williams

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Neither Venus Williams nor Kirsten Flipkens has played much tennis lately, and at frequent intervals of their first-round match at the Rogers Cup it showed. 

Flipkens, seeded No. 13, had been sidelined by a sore knee after her impressive semifinal run at Wimbledon. Williams was out for even longer with a bad back—two-and-a-half months after she lost to Urszula Radwanska in the first round of the French Open. The injury severely hampered the effectiveness of the American’s stinging serve, and that showed today. 

The scoreline in Flipkens’ win was 0-6, 6-4, 6-2—an eloquent a testament to the singular shift of momentum after that first set, as well as a good indication of the rust in each woman’s joints, and the cobwebs in their minds.

Williams, now down to No. 38 in the rankings, roared out and produced a first-set shutout that might have left you wondering if the long break hadn’t done her a lot of good. She served crisply and pounced on balls like the Venus of yore. At the same time, Flipkens broke every rule in the book: She hit drop shots at the wrong time (this would plague even in the better times to come; Flipkens is a classic case of a player with too many tools in the box), got caught flat-footed when returning a somewhat diminished serve, watched too many balls that seemed to be flying out land in, and made a fishing expedition out of her own service attempts. 

But over the course of this one-hour-and-50-minute match, Flipkens gradually found her game, or some semblance of it, while Williams slowly lost hers. The high point of the transition occurred in the ninth game of the second set, with the score knotted at 4-all. Flipkens served the next game, in which Williams had two break points, either of which—if converted—would have put her in position to slam the door and serve out the match.

Instead, Flipkens produced some of her best stuff—a backhand slice that slid away from Williams and an inside-out forehand winner, struck with an oddly brisk, relatively flat stroke that is one of the distinguishing features of her game. Those two break points eradicated, Williams made a pair of errors that allowed the Flipkens to escape with a hold. 

Then, in a game that lasted about nine minutes, Flipkens put Williams in a 15-40 hole with a slashing down-the-line forehand service return that was so close Hawk-Eye had the final say. It was proven good, but Williams dug in her heels. She hit a solid serve that Flipkens muffed with a chop backhand, and forced a forehand error to end a long rally. But Flipkens won the next point from deuce and once again Venus had to save the set—this time by outlasting the Belgian in the longest rally of the match to that point. 

From deuce again, Williams hit a terrific, sharply angled cross-court forehand pass while running the wrong way, but wasted that effort when she blew the game point with a forehand error. A double-fault gave Flipkens her fourth set point, and she converted it with another inside-out forehand service return winner.

That last point suggested that Williams, who is suffering from Sjogrens Syndrome—a condition that leaves those who have it prone to fatigue—was losing energy. The third set confirmed the diagnosis. At this point, Williams just can’t afford to allow matches like this one to get away from her.

Flipkens won six straight games starting with that dangerous, penultimate game of the second set. By the time she ran the streak to seven games, and a 5-0 lead in that final set, it was clear that Williams was spent.

Going forward, Venus will probably be playing with a considerably more complex mandate than NFL owner Al Davis’s famous, “Just win, baby.” For her, the message is “Just win quick, baby.” And that’s a tough assignment.

Stat of the Match: Williams had twice as many break points as Flipkens (16 to 8) but converted just five—the same number as her opponent.

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