NEW YORK - Venus Williams was bothered by a bad knee and distracted by more than a half-dozen foot faults. What never fazed her: a big deficit.
Quite close to losing in the U.S. Open’s first round for the first time, Williams came all the way back from a set and a break down to beat 47th-ranked Vera Dushevina of Russia 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-3 Monday night.
“I had a challenge on my hands today. But I wanted to win,” said the No. 3-seeded Williams, who made 54 unforced errors. “Each good shot, and each not-so-good shot, I put behind me and looked forward to the next one.”
Williams, twice the champion at Flushing Meadows, had her left knee bandaged by a trainer after the third game. The American also had plenty of trouble serving: She piled up 10 double-faults and was called for seven foot-faults.
Afterward, Williams wouldn’t discuss her knee problem in any detail.
“You could see I had some issues,” she said. “I don’t really talk about my injuries, historically, and I’m not going to start now.”
Asked what it’s going to take for her knee to be better for the second round, Williams said: “A lot of prayer. It’s going to be a lot of prayer. Everything I can throw at it. But, you know, I’m tough.”
She sure proved that on this night.
Dushevina broke for a 3-1 lead in the second set and was three points from winning at 5-4.
“Next few points,” Dushevina said, “she played great.”
That is true: Williams, who never has lost in the U.S. Open’s first round, won the next seven games.
Still, there was a bit of shakiness left. Up 4-0 in the third set, Williams dropped three games in a row before righting herself once again.
One measure of how big an upset this would have been: Williams owns seven Grand Slam titles; Dushevina only once has been as far as the fourth round at a major tournament. And then there’s this: Williams entered Monday 43-3 in first-round matches at tennis’ top four tournaments, including 10-0 at the U.S. Open.
Even though Williams improved those marks in the end, the 2-hour, 43-minute match did serve as the most intriguing encounter of a Day 1 that included victories for defending champion Serena Williams, Venus’ younger sister.
Kim Clijsters, who recently came out of retirement, won her first match at the U.S. Open since claiming her lone Grand Slam title in New York in 2005.
Venus Williams won the tournament in 2000 and 2001, and while she hasn’t been back to the final since losing to her sister in 2002, her earliest departure from New York came in the fourth round in 2004.
She looked headed for the exit at several moments Monday, particularly after Dushevina took the last four points of the first set after trailing 5-3 in the tiebreaker. Williams led by that score when she pounded an apparent service winner, one that would have given her a 6-3 lead and three set points.
But a line judge called Williams for a foot fault, her fourth. She seemed to lose her focus, turning to the official to ask, “Which foot?” When Williams went back to the baseline for the second serve, she netted it for a double-fault.
“It threw me off,” Williams said. “After that, I just got a little tentative.”
In the second set, Williams fell behind 3-1, then trailed 5-4. But she broke Dushevina there with a backhand winner, and began to hit her spots more.
Williams played most of her matches en route to the final at Wimbledon this year with a bulky tape job on her left knee. But she began Monday’s match without any such help. Three games in, she called for the trainer.
“I had some issues, and I needed some support,” she said, earning a roar from the fans. “I’m not one to complain. Everyone has injuries they’re dealing with. I did my best tonight, despite everything I was going through.”
About 12 hours earlier, in that same Arthur Ashe Stadium, spectators dotting the mostly empty stands called out to Clijsters as she stepped on the court that means so much to her.
“Come on, Kim!” yelled one fan. And then another. And yet another. “Hey, Kim!” someone else shouted.
Monday morning’s setting was a familiar one for Clijsters, whose lone Grand Slam championship came at Flushing Meadows on Sept. 10, 2005. That was the last time she played at the U.S. Open, and while the site was the same, the circumstances and the stakes were oh-so-different.
Clijsters’ 6-1, 6-1 victory over 79th-ranked Viktoriya Kutuzova of Ukraine came in the first round, the 26-year-old Belgian’s first Grand Slam match since January 2007. In the intervening two-plus years, Clijsters retired, got married and, in May 2008, gave birth to a daughter. Once No. 1, she came to the U.S. Open unranked and needed a wild-card invitation from the U.S. Tennis Association.
“Little more nervous than usual. It’s a very special court to me, but I really enjoyed it,” Clijsters said. “I felt really good out there.”
Two-time major champion Amelie Mauresmo won easily, as did No. 7 Vera Zvonareva, No. 8 Victoria Azarenka, No. 10 Flavia Pennetta, No. 12 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 14 Marion Bartoli, whose next opponent is Clijsters.
Bartoli, the 2007 Wimbledon runner-up, also just so happens to have been the first woman Clijsters played in her comeback. Clijsters beat her.
“I just have to go on court and think I’m still the player with the better ranking, so I’m supposed to win,” Bartoli said. “This time I know what to do. I have a plan, so it’s going to be different.”
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic wasted a chance to serve out the match and was beaten 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 by sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych in the Italian Open quarterfinals Friday.
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