Thursday, January 22, 2009
Error-strewn Williams ousted in Oz
By Ravi Ubha Special to ESPN.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The expression on Oracene Price's face said it all.
Deep in the third set on another nervy occasion at a Grand Slam, Price dipped her head, then shook it after daughter Venus Williams attempted a risky drive volley against plucky Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro. Williams found the corner at 3-1, but the joy was short-lived. Minutes later, the almost unfathomable happened -- Williams blew a 5-2 lead and one match point to exit 2-6, 6-3, 7-5. Earlier Thursday, Price had endured more suffering, watching younger daughter Serena Williams toil against Argentinean Gisela Dulko in two long sets as the sisters' vulnerability early in majors was exposed yet again.
Indeed, give or take a few shots, and both multiple Grand Slam champions would have departed at the same stage, reminiscent of last year's French Open, when the steady but unspectacular duo of Flavia Pennetta and Katarina Srebotnik inflicted damage. Instead, Serena Williams triumphed 6-3, 7-5, saving six set points in the second, part of a mammoth 12-deuce game.
If Serena Williams gave herself a grade of D-minus Thursday, Venus Williams' effort merited being thrown out of school. Suarez Navarro showed plenty of spark at last year's French Open, making the quarterfinals as a qualifier, and by year's end, her ranking rose from 169th to 50th. Consider, however, that the 20-year-old won only three top-tier matches on hard courts in 2008. Entering this Australian Open, she had a tame 2-2 record in 2009.
Williams' error count told much of the story, rising from nine to 12 to 16 in successive sets. She held a match point up 5-4 in the deciding set. Suarez Navarro, a slender figure, delivered a relatively standard serve to Williams' steadier wing, the backhand. Inexplicably, the return landed well long. On the next point, another return went astray as a crosscourt forehand sailed well wide.
"I'm used to definitely taking advantage of opportunities," Williams said post match. "Today it didn't work out."
Somewhat appropriately, the spectacle ended with a forehand into the net. When she wasn't missing, Williams' ball often fell short, giving Suarez Navarro enough time to line up her shots. Of course, she executed.
Interviewed on court afterward, Suarez Navarro was asked how she turned it around. "I don't know," she said, delighted. "I only play. I don't know what to say."
Williams was picked by more than a few to finally end her non-grass Grand Slam drought, which extends to eight years. She was arguably the second-best player at last year's U.S. Open -- losing to her sister in a pulsating quarterfinal -- and dominated the field at the year-end championships in Doha, Qatar. If she had downed Suarez Navarro, another seeming lightweight from Spain with a heavyweight name, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, awaited.
"It's a little too close after the match to figure out what areas went wrong, but I definitely have to credit her," Williams said.
From an American perspective, at least in the women's draw, it's up to Serena again.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.