On another day,in a different time,Venus Williams would have dispatched Urszula Radwanska the way big sisters send little sisters away. But Williams,now nearing the end of her career,has not been the dominant sister even in her own sibling match for years and Radwanska,with many more years to go,happens to be the younger sister of Agnieszka Radwanska,the fourth seed here.
Urszula may never usurp Agnieszka in the tennis hierarchy the way Serena Williams did Venus,but in the first round of the French Open on Sunday,in a battle of struggling sisters,Urszula was the healthier and younger,if not more gifted,one. And as dusk arrived on the first day of matches,it seemed to cast the most darkness on Williams,who lost to Radwanska 7-6 (5),6-7 (4),6-4.
The reputations say it was an upset. The reality indicates it was not. Radwanska is ranked 37th,just behind Williams,who is 30th. But Radwanskas back has not ached for months as Williamss has,causing her to play and lose just one match on red clay this year before this one and slowing her serve and her movement. Radwanskas legs,not worn down by injury and illness,stayed fresher through 3 hours 19 minutes of poor serving,erratic ground strokes and skittish nerves.
When it was over,Williams was reflective,and the strain of her back injury and her frustration with her inability to prepare properly showed most. She appeared to tear up several times but said she would play on,perhaps in some of the tuneup matches on grass she has typically avoided ahead of Wimbledon,because she wants to work out kinks,believing that better days like the ones she used to have with regularity will come again.
With what Ive gone through,its not easy, she said. But Im strong and Im a fighter. You know,I dont think Im just playing for me now. I think Im playing for a lot of people who havent felt well. I think for me today its a positive to be able to play three hours. Im constantly finding ways to get better and to feel better.
Perhaps that will come on grass and hardcourts,where she has had her greatest moments. Williams has never won the French Open,losing to Serena in 2002 in her only singles final. Last year,she was defeated by Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round,but she also hadnt lost here in the first round since 2001. And while she displayed an unusual amount of emotion during the match and summoned the paint-the-lines brilliance of her stronger days in a second set tiebreaker,it was not enough to end a skid that is sending her into the twilight of her playing days.
She won that set,but it also seemed to sap her energy reserves. Williams,who has an autoimmune disease,quickly lost the first four games of the third set. Although she got back to 4-5,it was two unforced errors that gave Radwanska her two match points,with Williamss final backhand dumped into the net. It might have been the last point Williams plays on French clay. When asked directly if it was,Williams said that if that were the case,we would know.
But she also acknowledged that the inflammation in her lower back means she cannot serve hard without great pain. She does not believe she can injure herself further as long as she serves softly. But having to serve softly does not just make her vulnerable to her opponents returns,it affects her own mentality.
Im just trying to handle defeats better because its no fun having a bad attitude about it,so I try to move on, she said. It helps if you had some wins in the past,too. Those keep you warm at night.