Venus fades, falls in French Open first round

PARIS -- The 2013 French Open began Sunday morning with top-ranked Serena Williams dispatching her opponent 6-0, 6-1 in just 51 minutes on Court Philippe Chatrier. It ended in the evening, with the sunlight fading on elder sister Venus as she lost a three-hour, 19-minute marathon match to Urszula Radwanska.

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Not long after sister Serena dominated her first-round match, Venus Williams made an early exit in Paris.

Playing with an ailing back that limits her famous serve, Venus lost 6-7, 7-6, 4-6. At one point late in the match, a chant of "Let's go Venus! Let's go Venus!" broke out among some of her obviously long-time fans. Venus played gallantly for them, grunting and serving and volleying and rallying and simply hanging tough against her 22-year-old opponent.

The end finally came with dusk creeping in -- perhaps figuratively as well as literally. Venus turns 33 next month, hasn't won a major in five years and has been eliminated in the first round twice in the past four.

Asked by a reporter whether she had any thought that this was her last match at the French Open, Venus replied, "If it's the last match, I'll let you know."

"It's disappointing to lose," she said to another question about her physical condition. "That's not what anyone comes out to do. I come out to win. What I'm going through is not easy but I'm strong and I'm a fighter. I don't think I'm playing for just me. I'm playing for a lot of people who haven't felt well. I think for me it's a positive to be able to play three hours.

"For me, I would never give up. Obviously, at some point everyone has to retire but I have to give myself a chance to continue working on feeling better. I wouldn't give up just because it's difficult."

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The three-set victory by Poland's Urszula Radwanska marked the second first-round exit by Venus Williams in the past four Grand Slam events.

Venus was vague about her back issue, describing it as lower inflammation. It had forced her out of several matches this year and she said because of that, her preparation for the French Open was "extremely un-ideal."

"I've definitely been struggling and I just wanted to come here and try to play. I think my movement is awesome," she said. "But I just haven't played many matches and hit many serves. It's just hard to be perfect in the first match. There were some periods where I found some rhythm and periods when I didn't. I tried very hard but my opponent just played a little better."

Her first-serve speed averaged just 95.2 mph Sunday, forcing her to alter her approach.

"I can't really serve very hard. It's painful when I do that, but it's getting better," Venus said. "I just ran out of time to get better for this tournament. My strategy was to just try to put the ball in and that's very difficult for me because that's not who I am. But that's all I had.

"I want my serve back and I'm going to try to get it back."

Despite the bad back, Venus will play doubles here with her sister, insisting it will not jeopardize her health. "Serena will do all the work. I'll stay at the net and volley and she'll do everything else."

The Williams sisters have beaten a lot of opponents, both together and separately. Now both the Radwanska sisters know what it's like. No. 4 ranked Agnieszka Radwanska beat Venus in the second round of last year's French Open.

"It's an amazing feeling to beat Venus," Urszula said. "When we were smaller we were watching Serena and Venus play, and how they played in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments. They were like idols for us. We wanted to be the same as them. Some people compare us to Venus and Serena but we still have a lot of work in front of us to be like them."

A lot of work, indeed, if they are to match the Williamses as the most successful sisters in tennis history.

"Venus and I have always pushed each other and I think Urszula and her sister can push each other and help each other for their whole careers," Serena said. "And it's really cool to have someone around who knows exactly what you're going through and is in the exact same position you're in."

Venus has been in the same position as Serena in the past. And if she never is again, well, to paraphrase Bogie's famous line about Paris, at least she'll always have that incredible career.

"It helps when you have wins in the past, too," Venus said. "Those keep you warm at night. I've got a lot of wins under my belt that help me feel better. It would be horrible if I never won anything."

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