On an opening day curtailed by rain, Venus Williams stunned Veronika Kudermetova at the Western & Southern Open being held at the Linder Tennis Family Center in Cincinnati this week, while Sloane Stephens and Anhelina Kalinina also got off the mark, but Elina Svitolina pulled out of her much-anticipated contest with Caroline Wozniacki.
I think at some point, when you're down a double break, you start to think, 'Well, I at least want to just hold serve for the rest of this set’. Simple thoughts like that. Then you get a little bit closer. You're like, 'Okay, maybe I just want to win another point’. Definitely some big holes today that I usually don't play from. ... But that's tennis. That's what's so exciting. Venus Williams
Before the rains came, 43-year old Williams turned back time and conjured up a huge upset by taking out Kudermetova, the Russian 16th seed, 6-4 7-5, in just under 2 hours after converting 6 of her 9 break points.
It was the American’s first Top 20 win in 4 years, since upending Kiki Bertens here in 2019, in fact, and her first tour win since she defeated Camila Giorgi in the Birmingham 1st-round in June.
“Definitely satisfaction from today is [from] all the work that goes into just being here at all,” Williams said, after her win. “I did my best to be here as soon as possible, in the best form possible I could bring in that amount of time. So that makes it satisfying, to be able to get a win with very little time to prepare.”
Kudermetova broke early to lead 4-1, but Williams mounted an extraordinary come-back to claim 5 games in a row and pocket the first set.
Flipping the momentum, Kudermetova won the next 4 games to go 4-1 up, and nearly closed out the second set at 5-2, and again at 5-3, when she held 2 set points to level proceedings, but Williams came back on both occasions, aided by a Russian double-fault and a pair of unforced errors, and, ultimately, fending off a break point in the 9th game with an un-returnable serve.
The 7-time Grand Slam winner held the momentum as she converted a break point in the 10th and a demoralised Kudermetova handed her the match with a pair of double-faults in the last game.
“I think at some point, when you’re down a double break, you start to think, ‘Well, I at least want to just hold serve for the rest of this set’,” said Williams, who improved her match record this year to 3-5. “Simple thoughts like that. Then you get a little bit closer. You’re like, ‘Okay, maybe I just want to win another point’.
“Definitely some big holes today that I usually don’t play from. … But that’s tennis. That’s what’s so exciting.”
While Kudermetova struck 16 winners to Williams’s 9, the Russian’s 33 unforced errors were more than double the American’s 15.
Williams may still be playing on the WTA Tour, but she is also expanding her business empire with a thriving YouTube channel.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail in Canada, she explained why she is speaking to her fans on the social media platform.
“YouTube is a place where you can bring who you are to life,” she said. “There’s no limit to the audience you can reach. And whether it’s a sports audience or not, I like to talk about motivation as well. I’m really focused on health and wellness.
“I’m obsessed with feeling good. And taking care of myself. And those are actually my hobbies. I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t do that.
“Before I made any content on YouTube, I had been so used to other people telling my story. YouTube was my chance for me to tell my story the way that I wanted. And that was so empowering.”
Williams, who came into Cincy ranked 533 and received a wild-card into the main draw, awaits the winner of the match between China’s Qinwen Zheng and Aliaksandra Sasnovich from Belarus in the 2nd-round.
Meanwhile, Stephens, her unseeded American compatriot, overcame a sluggish start to beat Italy’s Elisabetta Cocciaretto, 7-5 6-2.
Unable to get a full warm-up due to a 2 hour 44 minute rain delay, Stephens broke the Italian 5 times and saved 3 of 5 break points en route to sealing the win in 76 minutes.
“There’s a lot of adversity,” Stephens said. “You manage it the best you can. It’s tough for everyone.”
The 30-year old will next face French defending champion Caroline Garcia in the 2nd-round, who received a bye.
“I felt, like, when I came out here, I was a little bit slow and, obviously, she didn’t get to do her full warm-up, and our warm-up it was raining at the end,” the World No 38 said in her on-court interview. “So, a lot drama, but happy to be through after a slow start.”
Cocciaretto took control early on and built a 5-2 lead that gave her 2 chances to serve out the set, but Stephens dialled up the pace and broke to love on each occasion as she used a 5-game winning streak to wrap up the opening set.
In the second, Stephens kept her foot on the gas as she consolidated an early break with a hold to love for a 3-0 lead, before going on to end the encounter with another service break.
Stephens can expect a tougher test against 6th-seeded Garcia, who holds a 4-2 all-time record against the American, including a pair of 1st-round wins in Cincinnati, but Stephens won their most recent encounter at Guadalajara in 2022.
Elsewhere, Anastasia Potapova of Russia won a tight tussle with 18-year-old Swiss Celine Naef, 1-6 6-4 7-5, also a wild-card in the main draw, while Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina, ranked 28, beat China’s Lin Zhu, 6-3 7-5 to move into the 2nd-round on Monday night and she will play 5th-seeded Ons Jabeur from Tunisia next.
Fellow Ukrainian Svitolina, however, withdrew ahead of her 1st-round match against Wozniacki, in what should have been a meeting between 2 mothers returning to the tour after maternity leave.
“Unfortunately I have been experiencing some foot pain since Wimbledon and I was advised to have a scan after Montreal, which has shown some issues that need addressing and resting, so I am unable to play in Cincinnati this year,” 28-year old Svitolina stated.
“I am really disappointed to pull out anywhere but I love the fans in Cincy and love playing in front of them which makes it extra hard but I have to take the medical advice I have been given. I will do my best to rest and recover in time for the US Open now. Thank you for your understanding.”
It was a much-heralded encounter with Wozniacki, but the Dane player now will play against lucky loser Varvara Gracheva from France.