NEW YORK, NY, USA -- No.9 seed Venus Williams has had a brilliant year at the Grand Slam events, and she has successfully started her attempt at another big run at the 2017 US Open -- but not without a struggle.
The two-time US Open champion won a tough first-round match on Monday afternoon, with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory over 19-year-old qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia.
"She played amazing," said Williams in press after the match. "She played well, served well, competed well. Definitely a match I had to earn."
The difference in experience at the Grand Slam level could not be starker: the teenager was making her Grand Slam debut, while Williams is participating in her 19th US Open, including titles in 2000 and 2001, as well as runner-up finishes in 1997 (on her debut) and 2002.
Kuzmova, however, showed off her skills which have helped her rise 90 spots in the rankings so far this year, currently sitting at a career-high World No.135. In the qualifying rounds, she made it through three matches without losing a set.
But Williams, who reached the final at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year, came into this match with an 18-0 record in first-round matches at the US Open, and was determined from the start to maintain that level of perfection.
Kuzmova overcame her first-major jitters by surviving a nearly nine-minute game to get on the board for 1-1. But Williams came through with the first break of the match when a Kuzmova groundstroke flew long, and then held for a 4-1 advantage at the start of the match.
Kuzmova, who reached the US Open juniors final last year (falling there to Kayla Day of the United States), kept fighting, saving a set point at 5-2 with an ace, and then hitting another ace on game point to force Williams to serve out the first set at 5-3.
There, Williams used well-placed serves and her trademark power to close out the set 6-3, blasting a forehand winner past her young opponent to clinch the opening set.
The 37-year-old American opened the second set with a break of serve, but loose errors let Kuzmova bring it back level at 2-2.
Suddenly, after a handful of holds, Williams gave up an opening on her serve at 4-3, and Kuzmova hit a stunning forehand return out of the American’s reach to claim a 5-3 lead and a chance to serve for the second set.
When Kuzmova got to her first set point in the next game, a strong serve followed by a forehand winner clinched the set, 6-3. The Slovakian’s power and nerve began to match the American’s, and, unexpectedly, a 6-3, 2-0 lead had turned into a three-set tussle.
"I definitely wasn't expecting or planning on dropping sets today," said Williams after the match. "But things happen. That's why we play the match, because you have to win the match. So it's just all about regrouping. It's the first round. You figure out, you know, what's going on."
Williams held at love to open the deciding set, and then broke for another 2-0 lead when Kuzmova hit a forehand wide. For the third set in a row, the seven-time major champion had set a strong tone to start a set.
Williams then wobbled, and had to find some of her strongest serves of the match to climb out of a triple break point deficit and hold for 3-0.
Then, at 4-2, the American had issues with her service toss and double faulted to give Kuzmova another break point. Once again, Williams held and put the pressure back on the qualifier.
Finally, Kuzmova succumbed to another break at 5-2, and Williams prevailed on her second match point, after one hour and 43 minutes.
Kuzmova has to be proud of her performance in her first Grand Slam main draw match, hitting 10 aces and saving 12 of 16 break points.
But it is the veteran Venus who will advance to the second round of the US Open for the 19th time in her storied career. Her next opponent will be the winner of the all-French affair between Océane Dodin and Pauline Parmentier.