By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A promising start to the season for Venus Williams was undone in two-and-a-half hours on Monday as the 33-year-old crashed out of the Australian Open's opening round with a crushing defeat to her sister Serena's 2012 nemesis Ekaterina Makarova.
Making her 61st grand slam appearance and 14th at Melbourne Park, the American had arrived Down Under with an encouraging run to the final of the Auckland Classic, raising hopes of a fresh start after recent seasons blighted by injury and illness.
On a sunbathed Margaret Court Arena, the former world number one displayed the power and aggression of her halcyon days to roar through the opening set, but it was the uncertain, shaky Venus of recent vintage that ultimately collapsed to a 2-6 6-4 6-4 loss, having taken a 3-0 lead in the third.
Williams, who suffers from Sjogren's Syndrome which causes fatigue and joint pain, was hampered by back problems last year but declined to blame health issues for the loss. She could hardly have done so.
Throwing herself around the court with the enthusiasm of a teenager, her struggles were largely self-inflicted as she gave up a decisive break in the second set with three successive double-faults and suffered another serving meltdown with victory begging in the third.
"I think obviously I think my error count was a little high," Williams told reporters.
"I was hitting the ball well this week, and, you know, obviously it was disappointing to not win the first round.
"I have to give her a lot of credit. She was really determined, and, you know, just kept playing hard. I think any time you're seeded you just really want to win the first round."
Makarova, who stunned an injured Serena Williams in the fourth round of the 2012 Australian Open, made a second successive quarter-final appearance at Melbourne Park last year, but largely had her opponent to thank on Monday for her progress to a second round match with American Irina Falconi.
"I think it will be tough. She's 33 now," said 25-year-old Makarova of Williams's hopes of becoming a force again at grand slams.
"Sometimes when you are pushing her on her serve, she is making some double faults.
"Still when she's in good form, it's really tough to play against her."
Williams will team up with her sister Serena to bid for a fifth doubles title at Melbourne Park, and could well have another piece of silverware to fit into a crammed trophy cabinet, but her appearances in grand slam singles draws have become fleeting.
Thrashed in straight sets by Maria Sharapova in the third round at Melbourne Park last year, she was dumped from the first round of the French Open and the second at the U.S. Open after pulling out of Wimbledon with a bad back.
Asked whether she felt she could close the gap to her best tennis, Williams was also doubtful.
"I don't know. That's difficult to say, because I do play points really well, and then sometimes I don't put them together as well.
"I feel like I have to be patient with myself, because I really haven't had a chance to play that consistently.
"So I think I just have to be patient and keep going and just wait for it to keep coming together more and more."