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1st-round Slam win for Venus Williams matters now

Tuesday - 8/27/2013, 3:40am  ET

Francesca Schiavone, of Italy, returns to Serena Williams, of the United States, during the first round of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Tennis Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- For years and years, a first-round victory by Venus Williams at a major tournament would hardly merit a mention.

She is, after all, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion. She's been the runner-up another seven times.

She was ranked No. 1, owns Olympic gold medals, and is second to her younger sister Serena among active women in several key categories, including Grand Slam match wins, with 215.

And yet nowadays, at age 33, two years removed from being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that saps energy, hampered much of this season by a bad lower back, and her ranking down to 60th, Williams entered Day 1 at the 2013 U.S. Open having won a total of three matches over the past five Grand Slam tournaments. Plus, she was facing 12th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens, who was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last month and beat Williams on a hard court this month.

Looking very much like the player she used to be, Williams smacked serves at up to 120 mph, returned superbly, covered the court well enough to hit a handful of swinging volley winners, and beat Flipkens 6-1, 6-2 Monday to reach the second round at Flushing Meadows.

Flipkens, for one, was not surprised in the least to see Williams play that way. To Flipkens, this was not an upset -- no matter what the rankings indicate.

"If Venus is there -- if she's fit, if she's focused -- she's a top-10 player," Flipkens said. "Everybody who knows a little bit of the game of tennis can see that. Today, she was like a top-10 player."

Williams, who topped the WTA rankings in 2002, hasn't cracked the top 10 since she was No. 9 in March 2011. She hasn't been past the third round at a Grand Slam tournament since a fourth-round exit at Wimbledon later that year. Indeed, Williams lost in the first round in two of her previous four appearances at majors, including at the French Open in May; she sat out Wimbledon for the only time in her career in June.

"I stay positive because I know I can play great tennis. Sometimes you just have to go through more than what you want to go through," the American said after winning the first four games and the last four games against Belgium's Flipkens. "Sometimes you have to have losses."

Their match was the day's second in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and owing perhaps to the early hour -- or the stricter security measures, including new metal detectors, that led to long delays for spectators entering the grounds -- there were thousands of empty blue seats in the 23,000-capacity arena.

The place was full for the night session, when Serena Williams began her title defense with a 6-0, 6-1 victory, a performance so thoroughly impressive that her opponent, 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, was prompted in a brief moment of levity to seek comfort by hugging a ball boy.

"I don't need a hug in that moment, I need a game," joked Schiavone, who was trailing 6-0, 2-0 at the time.

Asked which meant more on this day, her own victory or her sister's, Serena replied: "They're equal. I definitely was happy to see Venus win. I really was happy for her. I know she's been working hard. I know she had a tough opponent. For her to come through was just awesome. Obviously, I want to do well, too."

The victory over Schiavone lasted exactly an hour, and light rain began falling right after it ended. Eventually, play was called off for the day, postponing 17-time major champion Roger Federer's match against 62nd-ranked Grega Zemlja of Slovenia until Tuesday.

Earlier on Ashe, 12-time major champion Rafael Nadal delivered a straightforward, straight-set victory over 21-year-old American Ryan Harrison, part of a series of smooth performances by top players. Flipkens was one of two seeded women to lose, along with No. 29 Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia.

Three seeded men exited during Monday's afternoon session: No. 11 Kei Nishikori, No. 27 Fernando Verdasco and No. 30 Ernests Gulbis.

Sloane Stephens, a 20-year-old American seeded 15th, very nearly was on the list of losers, dropping the opening set, then trailing 4-2 in the third and 3-1 in the closing tiebreaker, before coming back to edge 110th-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5).

Stephens heard plenty of support from the crowd, of course. She also picked out one particular voice in the stands that tried to remind her of at least one reason to be motivated.

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