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 unideal.”
“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.
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.
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.”