Venus Williams prepares to hit a forehand against Vesna Dolonts in their… (Julian Finney / Getty Images )
Reporting from New York — Venus Williams has come to this U.S. Open unseeded, ranked only 36th in the world, having spent her summer withdrawing from hard-court tournaments because of a viral illness and being spoken of only as a tennis afterthought.
And then Williams, after taking a few games to locate her ground strokes and power up her serve, soon enough was applauding the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd as it applauded her.
Williams, a two-time Open champion and a semifinalist last year, defeated 91st-ranked Vesna Dolonts, 6-4, 6-3. And if there is a reason to still be cautious about Williams' overall chances, it would be that her 22-year-old Russian opponent had arrived in New York from Russia only on Monday morning after a sequence of trouble with her international visa and a flight delayed by Hurricane Irene.
At first it was Dolonts who went up an early service break with a go-for-broke style. But Williams eventually figured out how to tame her forehand and became more aggressive in following her serve into the net.
When that happened, Williams began hitting outright winners, 28 for the match. "I'm an aggressive player," she said, "and I do enjoy moving forward. If I can get the opportunity to do so, I try to."
This is only Williams' fourth tournament in the last 12 months. But even though she's been practicing for only about a week, Williams said she would have been playing a tennis tournament somewhere right now.
"I'd be at a $50,000 challenger where I live at," she said. "I'd be at any tournament I could play. I just want to play tennis. It doesn't matter what the tournament is, I just want to play."
Although Williams was able to navigate the first round, Petra Kvitova, the 21-year-old left-hander from the Czech Republic, became the first reigning Wimbledon women's champion to lose in the opening round of the Open in the modern era of tennis. Kvitova, seeded fifth, lost serenely to little-noticed Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania, 7-6 (3), 6-3, committing 52 unforced errors, and afterward said, "I know I'm still young and this is something new for me. I felt pressure of course. Maybe it's a little of this. Everything is in the head."
Her inability or unwillingness to fight stood in contrast to the effort expended by third-seeded Maria Sharapova. The 2006 Open winner needed 2 hours 34 minutes to beat British teenager Heather Watson, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Watson, ranked 104th in the world, was making her U.S. Open debut and it was in Arthur Ashe Stadium. By the final set, fans had embraced Watson's quietly powerful game, chanting "Hea-ther Wat-son," often as a noise counterpunch to Sharapova's achingly loud shrieking.
But the atmosphere seemed to inspire Sharapova, who overcame 58 unforced errors and eight double faults. This season the Russian is 12-0 in three-set matches and she said, "I guess no matter how tired I am, I keep going for it, keep fighting for it."
Notables: Melanie Oudin, a surprise quarterfinalist here two years ago when she was 17, came to this Open with an 8-27 record this season and a ranking of 120, and she is already gone, a 6-0, 7-6 (7) loser to qualifier Romina Oprandi of Italy. . . . The top-ranked American man, eighth-seeded Mardy Fish, felt so confident that he tried a between-the-legs shot more often executed by Roger Federer. It worked and Fish won his first-round match against Tobias Kamke of Germany, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. . . . Federer, seeded third, was untroubled by 54th-ranked Santiago Giraldo of Colombia, winning, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.