WIMBLEDON, England – Racket bag slung over her shoulder, resignation written across her face, Venus Williams weaved through fans milling around on the sidewalks that players must traverse to get from Court 2 to the Wimbledon locker rooms.
The 32-year-old Williams had just absorbed a lopsided first-round loss at the Grand Slam tournament she once ruled, a poor performance that raised questions about how much longer she will keep playing competitive tennis while dealing with an energy-sapping illness.
She trudged by as her hitting partner, David Witt, was saying: “It’s tough to watch sometimes. I think everybody sees it. I don’t know what else to say.”
Looking lethargic, and rarely showing off the power-based game that carried her to five Wimbledon titles and seven majors overall, Williams departed meekly Monday with a 6-1, 6-3 defeat against 79th-ranked Elena Vesnina of Russia. Only once before — as a teenager making her Wimbledon debut in 1997 — had Williams exited so early at the All England Club.
She hadn’t lost in the first round at any Grand Slam tournament in 61/2 years. Still, Williams said she’ll be at the London Olympics next month and is “planning” to be back at Wimbledon next year.
“I feel like I’m a great player,” Williams said, sounding a tad like someone trying to convince herself.
She repeated that affirmation as she continued: “I am a great player. … There’s no way I’m just going to sit down and give up just because I have a hard time the first five or six freakin’ tournaments back.”
Later, as part of a slightly testy and awkward exchange with reporters, Williams said: “I’m tough, let me tell you. Tough as nails.”
Her loss, in her first match since a second-round ouster at the French Open, was part of an odd Day 1, even if the true tournament favorites in action won easily: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova.
Among those sent home were sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, the 2010 runner-up at Wimbledon; 11th-seeded John Isner; No. 16 Flavia Pennetta; and No. 18 Jelena Jankovic, who was easily beaten, 6-2, 6-4, by Kim Clijsters, a four-time major champion who has been beset by injuries in her last season on tour and, like Williams, is unseeded.
Other seeded losers: No. 23 Andreas Seppi, No. 24 Marcel Granollers and No. 27 Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, who was upset by 100th-ranked Jamie Hampton of the U.S., 6-4, 7-6 (1).
Truth be told, the biggest surprise might very well have been the way Isner — the highest-ranked American man — blew a match point, wasted a two-sets-to-one lead, dropped a tiebreaker on grass, and bid a 6-4, 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 farewell to Wimbledon in the first round against 73rd-ranked Alejandro Falla of Colombia.
Then again …
It’s the third consecutive major that Isner leaves after a five-set loss, including 18-16 at the French Open against 261st-ranked Paul-Henri Mathieu. This from a guy who’s best known for winning the longest match in tennis history, 70-68 in the fifth after more than 11 hours, against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010.
“I didn’t put my opponent away. I had my chances, and I didn’t do it. It’s all on me,” said the 6-foot-9 Isner, who hit 31 aces to Falla’s four. “I get out there sometimes, and lately it’s happening quite a lot, … I’m just so clouded. I just can’t seem to figure things out. I’m my own worst enemy out there. It’s all mental for me, and it’s pretty poor on my part.”