PARIS — Grimacing after some poor shots, leaning forward with hands on knees while catching her breath after others, Venus Williams left the French Open after the first round for the first time since 2001.
Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1-ranked player seeded 30th at Roland Garros, felt hampered by a bad back, had problems with her serve — all sorts of strokes, actually — and lost 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4 Sunday to 40th-ranked Urszula Radwanska of Poland, who never has been past the second round of a major tournament.
Inflammation in her lower back limited Williams to two matches over the previous 1½ months, preparation she called, with a chuckle, “extremely un-ideal.”
“I can’t really serve very hard. It’s painful when I do that. But I’m getting better. I just, you know, ran out of time to get better for this tournament,” said Williams, broken 11 of the 17 times she served Sunday. “My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am. But that’s all I had.”
Her quick exit came a year after she lost in the second round at Roland Garros to Radwanska’s older sister, Agnieszka, the 2012 Wimbledon runner-up.
“Yeah, of course, I was talking with Aga about Venus,” Urszula said. “I was well-prepared for this match, and I knew she was a great fighter, so I should be focused the whole match.”
Williams, naturally, also knows a thing or two about having a more successful tennis-playing sibling, and her short stay in Paris comes a year after younger sister Serena, who owns 15 Grand Slam titles, was upset in the first round at Roland Garros. Serena made a fluent return to the clay-court tournament in the early afternoon Sunday, overwhelming 74th-ranked Anna Tatishvili 6-0, 6-1 — and then addressing an appreciative audience at Court Philippe Chatrier in the local language.
“I have been speaking French for years and years, but I don’t really have a lot of confidence,” Serena said later, in English. “It’s way, way more nerve-racking than playing tennis.”
On this day, for her, absolutely.
With shadows creeping across the court in the early evening, Venus had a much tougher time against Urszula, who is far less accomplished than Agnieszka, the French Open’s fourth seed.
Truth be told, this result really was not nearly as stunning as Serena’s French Open loss last year to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano, who also won Sunday. That remains Serena’s only first-round departure in 51 appearances at Grand Slams, and she rebounded by winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the London Olympics.
Venus, 32 and still learning to live with an energy-sapping autoimmune disease, now has two first-round losses in the past four Grand Slam tournaments. Her defeat at Wimbledon last June was the first time she’d left a major championship that early since she lost in the first round of the Australian Open 6½ years earlier.
“With what I’ve gone through, it’s not easy. But I’m strong and I’m a fighter. You know, I don’t think I’m just playing for me now. I think I’m playing for a lot of people who haven’t felt well,” Venus said. “I think for me today it’s a positive to be able to play three hours. I’m constantly finding ways to get better and to feel better.”
The only other seeded player to lose on Day 1 was No. 11 Nadia Petrova of Russia, who was defeated by Monica Puig of Puerto Rico 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
The Williams sisters completely changed the way women’s tennis was played in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with 120 mph serves, stinging forehands and fantastic court coverage. They faced each other in eight Grand Slam finals, including the 2002 French Open, which Serena won.
Neither Williams has enjoyed much success in Paris after that championship match, where the clay tends to dull the strength of their swings and the footing can give them problems. Venus hasn’t been past the quarterfinals since 2002, while Serena hasn’t since 2003.
“I just keep trying, and it hasn’t been working out for me,” Serena, who is ranked and seeded No. 1, said after stretching her career-best winning streak to 25 matches. “I may have gotten nervous in the past or may have basically choked a few matches away.”
She won the first nine games against Tatishvili, and 30 of the first 37 points. On her serve, the final count was 28 of 33 points, bolstered by eight aces.
“I’ve played a lot of players who have very good serves, but hers is consistently good, so you always feel pressure when you’re returning,” Tatishvili said. “I wasn’t really surprised, because I’ve watched her so much, you know? It’s Serena Williams; you watch her always on TV or at tournaments. But it’s the first time I felt what I had seen.”
She probably saw plenty of Venus on television, too, but the older Williams is no longer the same player.
In a sign of the way things would develop, Venus was broken at love in the very first game. With Serena and their mother, Oracene Price, sitting in the stands — both occasionally placing chin on hand, looking glum — Venus kept missing the mark, finishing with 66 unforced errors to 40 for Urszula.
The match lasted 3 hours, 19 minutes, but it appeared ready to end much sooner, because Urszula took a 4-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker, three points from victory.
Perhaps feeling some nerves, Urszula started missing more, and Venus sprinkled in the occasional winner, reeling off seven points in a row to even the match at a set apiece. But Urszula broke Venus to open the third set and moved out to a 4-0 edge. Venus made one last stand, getting within 5-4 — a handful of fans in the nearly empty Court Suzanne Lenglen stands started a clap-accompanied chant of “Let’s go, Venus, let’s go!” — she couldn’t manage to pull even.
The match ended, fittingly, with one last miscue by Venus, a backhand she dumped into the net.
“I’m still shaking. Just a long match,” Urszula told the crowd afterward. “It’s an amazing feeling to beat her.”