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Venus Williams, the calm in the French Open storm

When you think of Venus Williams, you think of Wimbledon. Or at least you should. The elder Williams Sister has won five singles titles and five doubles titles at the All England Club in her legendary career. However, the French Open is actually where she made her Grand Slam debut.

In 1997, Venus stepped onto the clay courts in Paris ranked No. 90 in the world and faced world No. 45 Naoko Sawamatsu, a four-time winner on the WTA Tour. A 16-year-old Venus, clad in an ill-fitting metallic shirt, her braided hair decorated with white beads, was victorious, winning a dramatic 6-2. 6-7. 7-5. (You can actually see the last few games of the match here — thanks, YouTube!)

Nineteen years later, with seven Grand Slam titles and Sjoren’s Syndrome in tow, Venus is still at it, ranked No. 11 in the world and trailing only her sister as the second-ranked American. This week, her French Open campaign has gotten off to a great start. In the first round, she defeated Anett Kontaveit 7-6, 7-6, and on Thursday she beat 20-year-old American Louisa Chirico — who was one year old when Venus played Sawamatsu — 6-2, 6-1.

Clay has never been Venus’s best surface — this is actually her first time getting past the third round in Paris since 2010 — but she looked in command of everything on Thursday against her compatriot on Suzanne- Lenglen Court. She hit 22 winners to only 15 unforced errors, won 10 of 10 points at the net, and hit 68 percent of her first serves. The match lasted only 54 minutes.

“I’m just always looking to play better, you know, be consistent, be aggressive, and have that combination,” Venus said after the match. “When I step out on the court, it’s of course never going to be an easy match for me, but it’s never going to be easy for my opponent, as well.”

If Venus wants to make it to the second week of the tournament, the No. 9 seed is going to have to take care of some family business against Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in the third round.

Cornet famously defeated Venus’s sister Serena three times back in 2014 — once in Dubai, once in the third round of Wimbledon, and again at Wuhan in the fall, that time via retirement. Venus, however, has never had any trouble with Cornet — she leads their head-to-head 5-0, with their latest match coming last year in the quarterfinals of Hong Kong.

But wherever Cornet goes, drama usually follows, and that was certainly the case on Thursday at Roland Garros where she won 6-3,6-7,6-4 over Tatjana Maria. Cornet was up a set and a break before losing the plot, and she began to cramp during the second-set tiebreaker.

Throughout the third set, Cornet called medical timeouts for cramps (which you are not supposed to do) and dramatically limped around court in-between points. (The Tennis Island has a full account of the theatrics.)

With a packed hometown crowd looking on, it was pure hysteria, as Cornet was aggressive during points and nearly incapable of standing on her own in-between them. Maria complained about the amount of time that Cornet was taking and the fact that she was calling the doctor for cramps, not an injury, but to her dismay, the umpire didn’t hand out any point penalties.

Somehow the Frenchwoman pulled the match out, only to get a scolding from Maria at the net.

While Cornet was aghast at why Maria would be critical of her, she was simply overcome by her winning moment.

“[I]t’s very positive, positive because I was going beyond the physical pain, and I won in three sets. And the most positive thing, in all of that, is the support I got from the crowd, from the audience, and mainly during the third set,” Cornet said afterwards. “That was totally magical, completely magical. I couldn’t even believe this, to have such an atmosphere.

“I carried them with me into my world. It was wonderful. It’s only at Roland Garros that these things do happen.”

So, with the crowd against her and her opponent having the unique ability to lose her mind at any given moment, how will Venus keep collected on Saturday? Well, she’ll simply take it point by point, and keep a healthy amount of perspective.

“I definitely stay in the moment,” Venus said. “I’m just grateful I think with every year that passes and every moment that I play, I’m grateful for this experience and blessed.

“What else could I ask for, really? I’m very happy with what happens, win, lose, or draw. Of course I like to win and I prepare for wins, but it’s been beautiful to do what I love for a long time.”

Around the Grounds

  • Venus isn’t the only American woman cruising through the draw. Her sister Serena advanced with an identical scoreline on Thursday, 6-2, 6-1 over Teliana Pereira. No. 19 Sloane Stephens has made it through the first two round stress free, and Madison Keys, the No. 15 seed, is also through — she’ll face another up-and-comer Monica Puig in what could be an exciting third-round match. The only unseeded American woman to get this far is Shelby Rogers, who will have to face two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova next.
  • Despite the early upsets of Angelique Kerber and Victoria Azarenka, the women’s draw has held up pretty well through two full rounds — only three players in the top 15 are eliminated already: Kerber, Azarenka, and No. 7 Roberta Vinci. Twenty one of the top 32 seeds are still standing, compared to only 14 in the third round of the Australian Open.In addition to the Williams Sisters, Keys, and Stephens, players like No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 4 Garbine Muguruza, No. 6 Simona Halep, No. 8 Timea Bacsinszky, No. 10 Petra Kvitova, and No. 13 Svetlana Kuznetsova are all in really god form, which bodes well for the second week of the tournament. (As long as they all avoid upsets in the third round, of course.)
  • A few great French Open reads: Ben Rothenberg on Turkish tennis trailblazers, Steve Tignor on the powerful Madison Keys, and Courtney Nguyen of WTA Insider on everything from Olympic scenarios to retirement rumors.
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