By John Huston and Lucia Hoffman
She’s one of the greatest fighters in the women’s game. Now 34 and facing an autoimmune disorder that wreaks havoc on her energy level, Venus Williams has outlasted virtually all of her peers in terms of competitive lifespan—and this year, her ranking has risen. But it’s impossible to ignore what has become a pattern: Another US Open, another heartbreaking three-set Venus loss.
Venus has come out on top of some epic close encounters during her career, perhaps none more riveting than her razor’s edge triumph from the brink of defeat against Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 Wimbledon final. But in recent years, her record in three-set matches has grown dire, extending far beyond New York, where she’s suffered nail-biting losses in 2011 (against Angelique Kerber), 2013 (against Jie Zheng), and now today, against the dogged Sara Errani.
Earlier this summer, Venus appeared to turn a corner, when she vanquished Kerber with some stunning play in the late stages of their match in Montreal, going on to string three-set wins together, including one against sister Serena, on her way to the final.
And at Arthur Ashe Stadium, when Venus repaid a 6-0 loss in the first set to Errani with a second-set 6-0 win of her own, it seemed possible that the seven-time Slam champ might continue to build momentum. But Errani held firm, even when one American fan cried out Venus’s name during her ball toss, and another, irreverent one yelled “Arrivederci!” as the end drew near.
For her part, Venus wavered from 5-3 up, and after a pair of one-sided sets, the third went to a tiebreak. Defined by marathon backhand-to-backhand rallies and clutch drop volleys and touch shots by doubles-sharp Errani, the match’s final two points were electric.
Yet somehow, the outcome almost seemed predestined: Stop me if you think you’ve seen this one before. And if Errani’s doubles skills played a role in her win, conversely, Venus’s commitment to doubles—including a lengthy, hard-fought match with partner Serena last night—likely played a part in her lethargic start today. In the middle of their career, Venus and Serena were criticized for not playing enough, but these days, their love of the game has left fans of both sisters wondering if they’re playing too much.
Not that this troubles Venus. “Doubles teams come and go, but we stick together,” she said about the Williams partnership, after what she noted was her “fourth match in 48 hours,” a straight-set second-round doubles win later in the day. “It’s a match made in heaven.”
LUCKY NUMBER 15: In the Open’s first week, one number sticks out: 15. Fifteen-year-old CiCi Bellis‘s arrival as a teen prodigy had some referring to Andy Warhol‘s maxim about 15 minutes of fame. And today, Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic-Baroni reached the second week of a Slam for the first time in 15 years when she scored the tournament’s biggest upset so far, taking out No. 2 seed Simona Halep in straight sets. How old was Lucic when she first played at the US Open? You guessed it: 15. (Like Bellis, she had to take a wild card.)
Lucic-Baroni’s story involves comebacks from injuries, financial setbacks, and one of the most abusive coach-player relationships in tennis—she fled to the US to escape from her father, Marinko— and in the post-match press conference, she was asked about her “difficult” personal journey. “I’m a little bit emotional now,” she said, crying. “Sorry. It’s been really hard. After so many years, to be here again, it’s incredible. So many times I would get to a place where I could do it. Then I wanted it so bad that I kind of burned out. I’m so happy.”
Savoring what she called “best day of my life” at age 32, Lucic-Baroni agreed that she’d been “born again” in tennis terms: “I think that’s a great saying. I have heard that over the years, but in these last two weeks, absolutely. Absolutely. In every way.”
AGE AIN’T NOTHING BUT A NUMBER? At the age of 34, Victor Estrella Burgos of the Dominican Republic is making his first-ever appearance at the US Open, and he’s reached the third round. Ironically, to do so, he had to beat a player exactly half his age, 17-year-old phenom Borna Coric.
NOW HERE’S ONE THIEM THAT HAS AN I IN IT: Austria’s rising Dominic Thiem, 20, who blazed back from two sets down to send his friend and frequent hitting partner, the outspoken Ernests Gulbis, packing.
INITIALS BB: One of the rascally French genius Serge Gainsbourg‘s most famous ’60s pop compositions is “Initials BB,” written specifically for the starlet Brigitte Bardot. In WTA fan lingo, BB has sometimes been shorthand for “ball-basher.” But the initials are getting a new identity thanks to the thoughtful play of Swiss teen Belinda Bencic, who notched her first fourth-round appearance with an impressive straight-set win over world No. 7 Angelique Kerber.
PLANETS OUT OF ALIGNMENT: Venus Williams may have lost her singles match today, but New Zealand’s Michael Venus advanced to the third round in men’s doubles.
CICI BELLIS HEADLINE OF THE DAY: “It was fun while it lasted” (from Newsday).
THE SIZE OF THE FIGHT: “We are not too tall, and we have to fight with what we have.”—Sara Errani, about herself and compact male counterpart David Ferrer, on the Tennis Channel.
HE’S GOT 20-20-20 VISION: We always sensed that Roger Federer had a metaphysical side. Now it’s clear that the Almighty Fed has a third eye, thanks to this rendering of our Sept-Oct cover by San Clemente’s Kelan O’Brien—check it out after the jump: