PARIS — Venus Williams has lost her opening match at two consecutive Grand Slam tournaments for the first time in her illustrious career.
Her coach, David Witt, thinks the quick exit at the French Open on Sunday was because Williams did not do a good enough job of switching tactics on the red clay that has never been her best surface.
Williams bowed out in the first round in her 21st appearance at Roland Garros, beaten 6-4, 7-5 by 85th-ranked Wang Qiang of China. That follows an equally abrupt exit for the 37-year-old American at the Australian Open in January.
“The girl’s weapon is her forehand, but Venus kept hitting second serves to her forehand. You’ve got to realize what’s going on out there when you’re losing. And you’ve got to change. She didn’t change,” Witt said after watching Williams’ match Sunday from a guest box behind one of the baselines at Court Suzanne Lenglen.
“I’m sitting there, going, ‘OK, you can’t keep making that mistake,’ but she does,” Witt said. “It’s easier said than done. Somebody watching can see it. Somebody that’s playing sometimes can’t see it, regardless if they’ve played 20 years or more.”
The ninth-seeded Williams offered mostly terse answers in her news conference.
“I mean,” she said, “nobody plans on this.”
As for whether there were things she thought she could have tried to do differently Sunday, she replied: “Yeah, I think ‘differently’ is win the point.”
She actually built a 3-0 lead in the second set, then frittered that away. Over and over, she would shank a shot — backhands, more than anything — then look over in Witt’s direction with a hand on her hip. Her often-terrific serve was not on target, either, with only 56 percent of first serves landing in and four double-faults.
Over the course of 100 minutes on a muggy afternoon, Williams offered up 12 break points, four of which Wang converted. Williams made 16 of the match’s first 25 unforced groundstroke errors. She finished with 35 unforced errors in all, 21 more than Wang.
“I just wanted to play no mistakes — not too many mistakes — and if I get a chance (at a winner), I just go for it,” said Wang, who entered the day with only six victories in 20 previous Grand Slam matches.
Those 14 losses include one apiece against Williams at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2017.
Those times, Wang said, she was “a little bit nervous,” but on Sunday, “I think: ‘I have nothing to lose.’”
She has never been past the second round at a major.
Williams, in contrast, owns seven Grand Slam singles championships and has been the runner-up nine times, including a loss to her younger sister, Serena, in the 2002 French Open final. The siblings are entered in doubles in Paris, where Serena will be participating in a major in singles for the first time since January 2017, returning after giving birth to a daughter.
The older Williams revived her career last season by reaching the finals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. But she is just 10-7 in 2018, including 1-3 on red clay.
“Last year was probably one of her best years ever, as far as consistency. That’s going to be hard to duplicate,” Witt said. “The red clay — you sit there and say, ‘It’s not her surface.’ But at the same time, you see players like (Garbine) Muguruza win the French Open. You see Maria Sharapova win the French Open. You see big hitters.”
But Williams, Witt said, is “a hard-court player trying to play on a red-clay court. … You can’t rely on hitting 30, 40 winners. You can’t rely on hitting that one, big knockout punch and think you’re going to get away with it. On red clay, if you go for the knockout punch, you leave yourself open. You have to learn to jab-jab-jab-jab-jab and work the point.”
The two Williams siblings did not practice together in Paris in the leadup to the French Open, according to Witt. He said Venus worked last week on what she needs to do to succeed on clay, such as hitting angles and finishing volleys.
That went out the window against Wang.
“The easiest thing to do when you get out there, if you start losing, is to go back to your old ways of thinking: ‘I’m just going to blast the ball and I’m going to win that way,’” Witt said. “It’s not going to happen.”
NOTE: Jelena Ostapenko, also lost, becoming only the sixth defending women’s champion to lose in the opening round of her title defense at a Grand Slam tournament.