What had Venus Williams playing at half-speed in Olympic first-round loss

RIO DE JANEIRO — This is Venus Williams’ fifth and undoubtedly final Olympics. But after losing 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) in a three-hour marathon to the crafty Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium in a first-round singles match that had the evening crowd amped up into a frenzy for her opponent, the 36-year-old can only hope to do something special at these Games in doubles with sister Serena.

And even that possibility has to be a question mark. Williams continues to struggle with a virus she caught last week at the end of a WTA Tournament in Montreal that has left her in pretty bad shape physically. At the Rogers Cup event she was serving at half-speed – practically lobbing the ball in – although she declined to specify what the issue was.

After Saturday’s defeat, Williams chose not to come to the mixed zone to speak to the media. Instead, U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez fielded questions for her.

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“Unfortunately, Venus has been sick for a few days, is really ill right now,” Fernandez said. “She tried to get through that match – almost got to the finish line. But she’s been dehydrated, with some cramps, upset stomach. You probably could see on the court she’s coughing quite a bit.

“A bit of bad luck and bad timing that everything came together at this juncture for her. But she fought. She gave it her best out there.”

Given her physical state, Williams no doubt would have loved to play slam-bang tennis, using her power to finish off points quickly and save some energy. But Flipkens is the type of opponent who makes that more difficult to execute.

Venus Williams
(AP Photo)

“I think [Flipkens] was able to negate Venus’ power with the slice,” Fernandez said. “The drop shot was working really well for her and I think that took a lot out of Venus. She could have won, she had her chance, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Flipkens has a two-handed backhand but rarely uses it. Her slice forced the 6-foot-1 Williams to get low, and more often than not she returned the slice with a slice. That’s not a dynamic that will work in her favor any time. When she did try to come to the net to finish points, Flipkens effectively lobbed over her backhand side.

Also, the Brazilian crowd got behind the underdog Belgian in a hurry. So much so, it was tough for chair umpire Eva Asderaki-Moore to keep things under control between points.

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Flipkens, who has always been behind players like Kim Clijsters (a very close friend) and Justine Henin in the Belgian pecking order, is competing in her first Olympics at age 30. Undersized and underpowered, she used her guile to try to maximize the moment, and the crowd immediately took to it.

“When I hit the drop shot at 3-2 in the first set, they were going crazy. They were just enjoying my game,” Flipkens said. “I knew I had to do something special to beat Venus because if I’m playing with her from the baseline. I know I’m not going to be able to win the match.

“When you feel the appreciation and they enjoy it so much, that’s why I’m playing this sport,” she added about the fans. “Even after three hours, they’re still screaming your name all over the place. It’s unbelievable. I’m from Belgium; I’m not even from Brazil. I want to know what it is like when you’re a Brazilian guy playing on the center court.”

Williams was up 4-1 in that third set and had 15-40 on Flipkens’ serve. She was up 5-3 as well and was two points away from living to fight another day.

But she just couldn’t get it done.

Fernandez said Williams was hoping to recover for her first-round doubles match with her sister tomorrow. But it doesn’t look very promising. Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic are experienced, quality players.

“Two days before traveling she was pretty sick. She’s been fighting it off, but she still has a pretty bad cough,” Fernandez said. “Fingers crossed that she will feel better.”

Williams was the second American singles hope to fall Saturday in large part because of illness. Jack Sock, playing after being diagnosed with walking pneumonia, coughed and hacked his way to a first-round loss earlier in the day against Taro Daniel of Japan.