NEW YORK—When Venus Williams slashed her way to a 6-1 first set win in her first-round match with Kirsten Flipkens, the Belgian could be forgiven for thinking, “I’ve got her just where I want her now!”
After all, Williams won the first set even more convincingly when the two met a few weeks ago in Toronto—6-0—and Flipkens went on to wear down and outmaneuver her considerably taller, leaner, and more explosive opponent. “Not so fast,” Williams, a two-time champion here, seemed to say today—this is my house, this is the U.S. Open. Then she went on to win the match, a one-hour and 24-minute struggle that was much closer than the 6-1, 6-2 score suggests.
Williams had good reason to feel proprietary. At 33, she’s the second-oldest player in the main draw (behind Kimiko Date-Krumm, who’s 42) and she’d blazed 61 wins here, a mere 57 more than Flipkens. In fact, Williams has lost more matches on Grand Slam stages than Flipkens has played on them (51-39, including today). But you know how much that counts for on the morning before any given match, especially when it’s a No. 12 seed against a veteran clearly on the downswing.
The match-up between these two is an entertaining one. The fundamental question always is: Will Williams’ power and range prove superior to Flipkens’ excellent defense and creative shotmaking? But there’s a larger, more critical issue lurking behind that premise: Can either woman do what she does best with the requisite consistency? It’s an especially critical issue for Williams, whose bold shotmaking implicitly embodies greater risk.
Today, Williams jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead thanks to some heavy serving and surprisingly inconsistent play by Flipkens. It was hot and humid out on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium, suggesting that the ball would really fly. In no time at all, Flipkens was down 0-4, and she was forced to fend off a break point in the fifth game (she hit a forehand winner) to avoid another potential bagel set. She didn’t see a single break point in the opening set.
Williams survived a scare in the first game of the second set, fending off four break points before she put together a backhand winner and a pair of unreturnable serves to hold. When she broke Flipkens with ease in the very next game, it seemed a blow-out was in the works.
But Flipkens is one of those unpredictable players who is subject to fits of inspiration and creativity, and she was overcome by one in the next game—with considerable help from Williams, who made four errors to give up the game and her break-of-serve lead—for 2-1, on serve.
Flipkens began to work her backhand slices and those neither-fish nor fowl semi-drop shots that change the pace of a point and beg to be blasted to kingdom come. Williams obliged, with relish. Perhaps a little too much, in fact, for she became more error-prone and was clearly frustrated by Flipkens’ ability to keep alive points she appeared to have lost. The 27-year-old fought off two break points in the fourth game to hold, and she pressed Williams hard in the next one.
In that fifth game (2-2), Williams was forced to contend with six deuces and three break points. She wiped away the first of those with an ace, and the next with a service winner to the backhand side. Flipkens helped out on the last one, driving a cross-court forehand out.
You could feel that Williams needed to get out of that game with a hold to keep control of the match, and she did that with élan. She ended a wonderful, diverse rally with a backhand volley winner. Flipkens managed to get back to deuce once again, but Williams blasted a service winner to the forehand side and powdered an inside-out forehand off a so-so return to hold, 3-2.
The tenacity of Williams seems to deflate Flipkens, who went belly up in the next game without much resistance, and never challenged again.
This seems a very valuable win for the older Williams sister. For one thing, the early win over a fairly high seed gives her only two names to worry about—on paper, anyway—en route to the quarterfinal round, No. 25 Kaia Kanepi and No. 18 Carla Suarez Navarro. For another, Williams suffers from Sjogren’s syndrome, which is often linked to fatigue. She must be happy to have endured the 90-minute match with what appeared to be excellent energy.
Venus hasn’t made that deep run at a major that so many ageing champions pull off before they say good-bye. Could this be the time and place she does it?
IBM Stat of the Match: Flipkens had her chances, but she made just one of eight break points—a dismal 13 percent conversion rate. Some but not all of the blame for that can be put on the quality of the Williams’ serve and her powerful groundstrokes.
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