Venus Williams let a very winnable first round match slip through her grasp at the Australian Open. Up 6-2 and holding two break points for a 4-2 lead in the second, Williams unravelled and eventually lost to a more consistent Ekaterina Makarova, 6-2 4-6 4-6.
This is such a disappointing result for Venus. She looked so good for the first set and a half; it seemed she was building on the good work of two weeks ago in Auckland. Even after squandering her advantage in the second set, she raced out to another lead in the third (3-0), having gotten the erratic play under control. Then, in the perfect example of why it can be so maddening to be a Venus fan, she lost 6 of the next 7 games, and the match.
What went wrong?
It’s easy to sit here and write that Venus squandered countless opportunities, but that only demeans the role her opponent played in the proceedings. The fact is that Makarova acquitted herself well, playing far more consistent tennis. She’s made two consecutive quarters in Australia and beat Serena here in 2012 - she’s no slouch. More than anything, she competes well; precisely the type of player who troubles Venus most - able to take advantage of her inevitable barrage of unforced errors.
If Venus is to return to the top-10, she’ll have to find a way to compete better in the middle of the court, picking the right times to attack the angles and lines. One of the biggest issues today was her impatience in changing the direction of the ball during baseline exchanges. She has the power to stay in rallies with the best, and has to trust her ability to outlast her opponent from the baseline. Venus has always been a very attacking player, but perhaps her reluctance to play more conservatively is due in part to her battle with Sjogren’s Syndrome. Maybe she doesn’t believe she can physically outlast her opponents anymore; she doesn’t trust that her body will hold up.
Her most positive stat was winning 20/24 points at the net, something she must keep featuring in matches going forward. The serve wasn’t terrible today, but it let her down at key moments - most notably when she gifted three straight double faults to go down 4-5 in the second. Still, her fastest first serve was 117 mph and averaged 107 mph overall. It was enough to win, but she let herself down most from the baseline, making more than twice the number of unforced errors as her opponent.
Hopefully Venus is able to put this loss behind her quickly and get on with the business of climbing the rankings. A higher ranking and being seeded will mean she won’t have to play the Makarovas of the the tour in the early rounds. This will afford her the chance to build the necessary confidence to deal with the higher ranked players later on in tournaments. The biggest key, as always, will be her health. Venus hit 50 winners today; she’s still got the fire power. It’s a matter of sustaining her play for extended periods.