NEW YORK — For years, a first-round victory by Venus Williams at a major tournament would hardly merit a mention.
Yet Williams — at age 33, two years removed from being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that saps energy, hampered much of this season by a bad lower back and her ranking down to 60th, — entered the U.S. Open having won a total of three matches over the past five Grand Slams. Plus, she was facing 12th-seeded Kirsten Flipkens, who was a semifinalist at Wimbledon last month and beat Williams on a hard court this month.
Looking very much like the player she used to be, Williams smacked serves at up to 120 mph, returned superbly, covered the court well enough to hit a handful of swinging volley winners and beat Flipkens 6-1, 6-2 Monday to reach the second round at Flushing Meadows.
Flipkens, for one, was not surprised to see Williams play that way.
"If Venus is there — if she's fit, if she's focused — she's a top-10 player," Flipkens said. "Everybody who knows a little bit of the game of tennis can see that. (Monday), she was like a top-10 player."
Williams, who topped the WTA rankings in 2002, hasn't cracked the top 10 since she was No. 9 in March 2011. She hasn't been past the third round at a Grand Slam tournament since a fourth-round exit at Wimbledon later that year.
"I stay positive because I know I can play great tennis. Sometimes you just have to go through more than what you want to go through," the American said after winning the first four games and the last four against Belgium's Flipkens. "Sometimes you have to have losses."
Later, Venus' younger sister Serena Williams cruised to a dominant 6-0, 6-1 victory over Francesca Schiavone, who midway through the second set wandered behind the baseline, found a ball boy and hugged him. Rafael Nadal, a 12-time major champion, earned a straightforward straight-set victory over 21-year-old American Ryan Harrison.
Flipkens was the first seeded woman to lose at the year's last Grand Slam. Sloane Stephens, seeded 15th, very nearly joined her, dropping the opening set then trailing 4-2 in the third and 3-1 in the closing tiebreaker before coming back to edge 110th-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5).