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Venus, Isner lose early at Wimbledon
This was not a good start for American hopes at Wimbledon. Venus Williams and James Blake had gone before people tucked into their strawberries and cream at tea time, and John Isner had joined them before cocktails.
The chaser followed soon after — No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, a finalist at Wimbledon in 2010, was beaten in three straight tiebreakers by the hugely talented but frequently underachieving Latvian Ernests Gulbis.
"I didn't choke like I usually do," Gulbis said with a smile.
For Venus, beaten 6-1, 6-3 by Russia's Elena Vesnina, it was a defeat born out of illness and lack of match practice. For Blake, who went down to the German Benjamin Becker 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-0, 6-4 it was a simply a matter of the passing years.
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But Isner? Oh, dear, what can the matter be?
The year had started so well for this giant with the massive serve when he proved that he had so much to offer by winning Davis Cup ties on red clay in Switzerland and France, beating Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the process. But he never built on those achievements. For reasons he struggles to explain, he lost confidence when he returned to Europe for Madrid and Rome, and more of it drained away when he lost the longest match in French Open history to Paul-Henri Mathieu at Roland Garros.
Here, he came back well on the new, compact No. 3 Court. Isner won a second-set tiebreaker to draw level and won the third set with ease. He had match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker, but he made a poor service return off his opponent's swinging left-handed serve and the chance was gone.
"I didn't put my opponent away," he said with the glum expression we have come to recognize the past few weeks in Europe. "I had my chances and I didn't do it. It's all on me. Just not great on my part."
"I felt fine coming here," he continued. "It's just that now I get out there sometimes — and lately it's been happening a lot — and I'm just so clouded. I just can't seem to figure things out. I'm my own worst enemy out there. It's all mental for me, and it's pretty poor."
Did Isner become too reliant on captain Jim Courier, who was on court with him during his Davis Cup triumphs? It's a question that needs asking because Isner with Courier and Isner without the four-time Grand Slam winner have turned into two different players.
Despite the fact she is suffering from Sjogren's disease, Venus refused to entertain the thought that this might be her last Wimbledon. Will we see her here again?
"I'm planning on it," she said with a smile. "And at the Olympics, you'll see me here. Today, I didn't have the best start. I don't think that helped. She's been on tour for a while, so players like her know how to hold on to a game, hold serve. She played well."
Venus was twice within a point of losing the first set 6-0. Despite fighting hard in the second, she never could make inroads into Vesnina's solid game. But the older Williams sister refused to be downhearted by that.
"I feel like I am a great player. I am great player," Venus said. "Unfortunately, I had to deal with circumstances (her illness) that people don't normally have to deal with in this sport. But I can't be discouraged by that. I'm up for challenges. I don't have time to be negative. I love this sport. I feel I can play well, and I'm not going to give up on that."
Vesnina, a 25-year-old from Sochi on the Black Sea, called it the best win of her career. The victory was made all the more special because of a memory she has of watching Venus beat Lindsay Davenport 9-7 in the third set in 2005.
"I was playing a $25,000 event in Italy, qualifying or something on clay, and they were showing the final on TV," Vesnina recalled. "It was a really long match and I thought 'Oh, my God' there's two players, they're legends and it's the final of Wimbledon. I'm dreaming that one day I'm going to be there and play there."
At least there was good news for American fans from Court 12, where Ryan Harrison battled back well from losing the first set to 56th-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan, who has been in good form of late, to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. But it won't get any easier for Harrison. Next round, it will be the defending champion Novak Djokovic, who played like he owned Centre Court while beating former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.