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Tennis

Venus vows Wimbledon return after first-round loss to Vesnina

WIMBLEDON, England -- The Williams sisters have built legacies unlike any in the history of sport on their ability to persevere and overcome challenges that would grind lesser athletes into acquiescence.

Keep calm and carry on, as they say here.

But after Venus crashed out of Wimbledon in all of 75 minutes Monday against an opponent she'd have walked through in her prime, it's evident the five-time Wimbledon champion is up against the most formidable opponent of her career.

It's not Elena Vesnina, whose opportunistic 6-1, 6-3 victory marked Venus' first opening-round defeat since her All England Lawn Tennis Club debut in 1997, rather the incurable autoimmune disease known as Sjögren's Syndrome that's cast major doubt on the American's entire tennis future.

It was a decidedly un-Venus-like performance from the jump: the 32-year-old opened the match with consecutive double-faults, quickly fell behind two breaks and came within a point of getting bageled in the first set. She served just 33 percent and won only 30 percent of points on her second serve, settling for a scoreline that represented the most lopsided set that she's ever lost at Wimbledon in 92 career matches here.

Williams mustered a stiffer challenge in the second set, but could never find the consistency that once made her one of the most fearsome grass-court players in history, alternating thunderous 116-m.p.h. aces and laser-guided cross-court backhands with uncharacteristic errors and little response for the Russian's shrewd net play. She was broken for a fifth time in the sixth game of the set, opening the door for Vesnina to serve out the victory.

"I didn't have the best start," Williams said. "She's been on the tour for a while. Players like her, they know how to hold onto a game and hold serve. She played well."

The details of Venus' condition are murky because, true to her guarded disposition, she's reluctant to discuss it. She deflected questions during Monday's post-match presser with the skill of a veteran politician, offering mechanical praise to her opponent and saying, politely but with implicit finality, "I did my best."

The most alarming element of Williams' ordeal is the unpredictability of her symptoms. In rare moments of candor, she's described waking up not knowing how she'll feel on a given day, no small concern in a sport where the biggest prizes involve winning seven matches against increasingly demanding opposition during a 14-day span. Success under those conditions involves more fortune than a player of Venus' caliber can afford to depend on.

"It was not her best day, of course," said Vesnina, a decade-long tour veteran ranked 79th, who called Monday's result the biggest win of her career. "For me, it was one of the best."

The old No. 2 Court, before it was demolished three years ago, was known as the "Graveyard of Champions" for the number of decorated players who suffered improbable losses within its cramped confines through the years. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Martina Hingis each lost head-scratchers there to unheralded opponents. It's where Serena suffered her earliest loss at a major in six years back in 2005. Most famously, Pete Sampras crumbled in a second-round loss to 145th-ranked George Bastl in what turned out to be the American's final Wimbledon match.

The new Court 2 was constructed on an adjacent plot, accommodates 4,000 spectators and bears no resemblance its notorious predecessor, yet Venus' loss -- superficially at least -- was no less mystifying. And the symbolism among the tennis cognoscenti was unmistakable.

Yet while Monday's desultory setback raised more questions than answers for a fallen legend, one person who believes Venus is capable of rising again is Vesnina.

"She's not in the top 10, but you can still feel she will get a few more matches and she can be back again," said Vesnina, who will reprise her underdog role against third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. "Williams sisters, they have this power. They have this ability to come back from nowhere. They know how to do that. If she would get a few more matches, get some wins, then it will be a totally different story."

As for those looking to expedite Venus into retirement, the seven-time major champion insists she's not going anywhere. After competing in this year's Olympics -- her pronounced goal since rejoining the tour in March was to amass enough rankings points to make the team -- she promises a return to Wimbledon for next year's tournament is in her sights.

"I'm planning on it," she said. "I feel like I am a great player. I am a great player. Unfortunately, I've had to deal with circumstances that people don't normally have to deal with in this sport.

"There's no way I'm just going to give up. That's just not me. I'm tough, let me tell you, tough as nails. The only thing I can do is be positive. I love this sport. I feel I can play well and I'm not going to give up on that."

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