CINCINNATI, OH, USA - It was a grind, but Venus Williams made a winning beginning to her Western & Southern Open campaign on Tuesday, battling past No.12 seed Maria Kirilenko in a first round thriller, 63 67(5) 62.
Williams won the first set handily and had all kinds of leads in the second set - she was up 5-3 and served for it twice at 5-4 and 6-5 - but she ended up losing that set and having to go to a third set to get by Kirilenko, who has been playing the best tennis of her career this year, currently at a career-high of No.14.
"I was putting too much emphasis on my serve when I was trying to serve it out in the second set - when I had to hit some groundstrokes, I wasn't patient enough," Williams said. "I should have just stuck in there and worked the point, but I got a little impatient. It doesn't work, especially against a player like her.
"I changed my ways in the third."
At this time last year Williams was out with a viral illness, which ended up being diagnosed as Sjögren's Syndrome at the US Open. Now, almost a year later, Williams is looking strong again, a two-hour, 23-minute win against a Top 15 player showing the former No.1 might be on the edge of more glory days.
"I'm doing a lot better now than this time last year. So much better. So much better than a couple months ago as well," Williams said in her presser. "I'm learning to deal with everything a lot better. Before, if I woke up and didn't feel great, I would panic and lose my match 2 and 1. I had a few 2 and 1 losses this year but I had to take those losses in order to learn and get better."
Williams pointed to the French Open-Wimbledon season as a low point.
"I wasn't really feeling well during that time," the American said. "It was a very hard time for me. To qualify for the Olympics during that time was definitely one of the biggest achievements of my career, for sure - a personal battle.
"But I'm learning. I'm trying different things all the time. I keep working with my doctors. Nothing can prevent bad days, but the bad days aren't as bad as they used to be. Now I realize I have to hang in there if I'm not having the best day.
"My main goal is to be 100%, but it's not like it goes away. It's still in my body trying to fight against me, but I'm fighting against it as well."
And Williams isn't planning on stopping anytime soon - after playing her fourth Olympics in London this year, she already has her eye on her fifth.
"When it was over I was like, I can't wait until Rio. I'm very excited about Rio. That will probably be my last one. By that time I'll be creeping up in age.
"That would be an awesome career. I figure I'm going to spend more time retired than pro, so while I'm here I'm going to go for it. If I'm on one leg and I get to Rio, that's great, too. That's my whole goal: continue to work on my health and stay as healthy as possble - if that happens, I believe I can get to Rio."
Kirilenko wasn't the only seed to lose in first round action on Tuesday, with No.15 seed Nadia Petrova retiring due to dizziness while trailing Ekaterina Makarova, 76(8) 31, and No.16 seed Lucie Safarova losing out to Kazakh qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova, 63 64. Safarova was coming off the semifinals in Montréal and had just broken the Top 20 for the first time this week.
The other first round winners were Roberta Vinci, Daniela Hantuchova, Chanelle Scheepers, Sorana Cirstea, Sofia Arvidsson, qualifiers Sesil Karatantcheva and Andrea Hlavackova, lucky loser Anna Tatishvili and wildcard Sloane Stephens. Hantuchova had the most dramatic victory, rallying from 26 13 and saving a match point at 26 45 to beat Zheng Jie, 26 76(1) 61.
Hantuchova's reward for the comeback victory is a second round date with No.7 seed Sara Errani. Hantuchova leads their head-to-head, 4-1, and has won their last two meetings routinely - 60 62 and 61 62 - but Errani was never ranked higher than No.39 in any of those meetings and is now a Top 10 player.