French Open 2017

French Open 2017: ‘Still a lot left’ as Venus Williams and Sam Stosur keep on keeping on

Venus Williams and Sam Stosur are both through to the last 32 of the French Open in Paris

venus williams
Venus Williams is through to the last 32 in Paris Photo: Dubai Duty Free Championships

It turned into a fine hour or so at the start of the day for the two oldest women left in the singles draw at this year’s French Open.

First on court on a bright and breezy Wednesday was No10 seed, Venus Williams, who will turn 37 in a fortnight’s time.

She would play Kurumi Nara, a woman more than a decade younger, and the Japanese woman would delay the American for just an hour and 20 minutes. Never mind that Williams went down a break in the fourth game, she then went on a tear of five games, including a gruelling 11-minute test in the seventh that finally broke the Japanese woman and decided the first set, 6-3.

The second set would take rather less time, as Williams thundered through the demoralised Nara for the loss of just one more game, 6-1.

However, Williams, aside from being the oldest woman to start in the draw, has another claim to fame this year. She is breaking an Open Era record with her 20th appearance at Roland Garros, and moved second behind sister Serena among all active players for matches played here. And although Serena was absent from the draw this year, she was still present and correct on Philipp Chatrier to watch her sister play her 66th match.

All things considered, though, it is extraordinary that Venus, who six years ago looked as though her career would be ended by the debilitating Sjogren’s Syndrome, is regarded this year as one of the favourites to go deep into the draw in Paris—perhaps even make the final.

Clay is far from Williams’ best surface. Her seven Major singles titles have come at Wimbledon and the US Open, and her resurgence this year took her to the final at the Australian Open, the quarters at Indian Wells, and the semis in Miami—though she did also make the quarters at Rome in preparation for the red stuff.

It was way back in 2002 that she reached her only final at Roland Garros, and for all her appearances here, she has only made four further quarter-finals. But could the absence of two previous champions—her sister, along with Maria Sharapova—boost her chances of an Indian Summer in Paris?

It may depend on how much good fortune she enjoys as the draw unfolds. A little luck has already unfolded with the loss of No6 seed Dominika Cibulkova, who Williams might have met in the fourth round. And she faces the No60-ranked Elise Mertens in her next match instead of No24 seed Daria Gavrilova.

However, the defending champion, Garbine Muguruza, who survived a big scare, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-2, against Anett Kontaveit, remains the likely quarter-final opponent.

In the top half of her draw, though, lies another veteran, another former Grand Slam champion, who has looked in fine shape both ahead of Paris and now that she has landed on Roland Garros’s courts.

Samantha Stosur, seeded 23, has always thrived at the French Open. Now age 33, she was runner-up here in 2010, and semi-finalist for the third time last year. She also happened to win the Strasbourg title last week, and took little time to dispatch Kirsten Flipkens, 6-2, 7-6(6), in the second round

It was suggested to her that this top quarter of the draw had already opened up, to such an extent that she could reach the quarter-finals without facing another seed.

No1 Angelique Kerber lost in the first round, along with No31 seed Roberta Vinci. Then Petra Kvitova, seeded 15 but playing her first matches since her hand was stabbed six months ago, lost just as Stosur was winning. The Australian’s next opponent will thus be 32-year-old No117, Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

But Stosur brushed aside any notion of becoming one of the favourites here:

“No, look, that’s a great thing. I think that’s a good position to be in. I’ve obviously had great results here in the past. It’s a surface that I enjoy playing on. And even up until last week I still felt like I was playing well throughout the clay season and was getting better and better as the weeks were going on, and I guess I proved that to myself last week.”

She was then asked about the chances of one of the ‘veterans’ in the draw—and a former French Open champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, was also battling for a place in the third round well into the dusk—Stosur admitted that experience alongside fitness was not to be dismissed.

“Yes, I think there is still a lot of life left in a lot of us older ones who are over 30. I think we keep proving that time and time again that it’s certainly not a hindrance. We can use that experience and, yeah, hopefully I can use everything and have another good tournament here.”

The 2009 champion Kuznetsova, who turns 32 next month and was playing her 15th consecutive main draw here, had a fierce tussle with 20-year-old Frenchwoman, Oceane Dodin, and had won only her first match here to reach the second round.Theirs was the last singles match still in play at 9.15pm, and deep into its third hour. It was touch and go whether it would finish the same night at all.

But it was Francesca Schiavone, another veteran and former champion who made what was possibly her last appearance here this week, who summed up the mood around Roland Garros—and beyond—as men and women of mature years continue to maintain the highest of levels.

Lest anyone forget, for example, the non-playing but very present 35-year-old Serena Williams won her 23rd singles title in Australia at the start of the year—beating sister Venus.

Schiavone’s words, then, provided a powerful message.

“Can you see Venus that she’s playing 20 years here? It’s amazing. It’s something very special that if you love the sport you can do it. Just if you go through problems physically and you keep going to work and push your limits every time, I think is fantastic. I see Venus here, and I say, ‘Wow, this is a big example for everybody.’”

Footnote: Kuznetsova advanced to the third round, where she will play No32 seed Shuai Zhang after a 7-6(5), 5-7, 6-3 win over Dodin.

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