Venus eclipsed in first game back after injury
An upbeat Venus Williams shrugged off any concerns ahead of the new season despite suffering a quick-fire straight-sets defeat by Vera Zvonareva at the Hong Kong Tennis Classic last night, the American's first outing since August.
Injuries have plagued Williams' career, with the latest knee problem keeping the 30-year-old world number five on the sidelines since reaching the semis at the US Open. That event was her only outing in the final six months of the year, after reaching the last eight at Wimbledon.
And though the annual exhibition event at Victoria Park was her only outing before the Australian Open, which begins in Melbourne in less than two weeks, Williams spent just 75 minutes on court, as world number two Zvonareva dispatched the seven-time major winner 6-4, 6-2.
'Coming back in the first match of the year you are not sure what to expect, and I think I made a few errors and didn't put as many balls in the court as I would have liked,' said former world number one Williams, who started last year in fine style with back-to-back wins in February before injury struck.
'I just need to get out there and play points. I don't feel any pressure to get out and play my best tennis, as I know that will come with every match.'
Zvonareva, who made two grand slam final appearances last year, crucially broke Williams' serve for a 3-2 lead in the first set. A further break in the opening game of the second frame set Zvonareva on her way before Williams again lost her serve in what proved to be the penultimate game of the match. The Russian won the final three games.
'It was just great to be out competing and hitting balls,' said Williams, who will face another stern test today against Li Na, Chinese world number 11.
'I felt a little rusty in terms of playing points and competing, but that's why it is important to be playing matches. I haven't played that many in the last six months and I think it showed a little, but it is not too unexpected. Physically I am pretty solid. I am just building every day.'
Zvonareva, who has lost the last seven competitive meetings with the former world number one, is keen to build on a superb 2010, which also saw the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist claim the 10th title of her career.
'Overall I felt pretty good,' the 26-year-old said. 'It is tough to play your best tennis in the first match of the season, and I think we both didn't, but I was trying to keep my concentration and trying to put everything together and I think I did really well.
'Every time you have a good year you want to take that momentum into the next year. I think overall I am a much more experienced player and overall I think I can play different matches and deal with different situations much better and use that experience.
'It will take a lot of hard work to take that next step, because when you are at this level everything has to improve a little. I have to use my strengths and make sure I am fresh for the important matches.'
Earlier, Maria Kirilenko, world number 20, came from a set down to beat American teenager Melanie Oudin 3-6, 7-6 (7/2), 6-0 in a marathon 2 1/2-hour contest.
Oudin, world number 61, who grabbed the headlines in 2009 by downing a host of star names to reach to quarter-finals of the US Open, served for the match twice, but 23-year-old Kirilenko's experience ultimately proved the difference in the second set tie-break and the equally one-sided 27-minute decider.
'I feel like I definitely should have won,' 19-year-old Oudin said. 'I had my chances. Maria is a top-20 player and a lot older than me and that made the difference.'
And with Yevgeny Kafelnikov beating flamboyant seven-time grand slam champion John McEnroe in straight sets, defending World Team Challenge-champions Team Russia secured a place in the gold group finals against the Team Europe of world number one Caroline Wozniacki, France's Aravane Rezai and six-time grand slam champion Stefan Edberg.
Team Americas, who were unable to avoid a whitewash as Williams and McEnroe lost to Zvonareva and Kafelnikov, will look to take consolation in the silver group finals against Li's Team Asia Pacific with Hong Kong's Zhang Ling opening proceedings today against Oudin.
Later, Rezai world number 19, will look to give Team Europe the ideal start in the gold group finals against Kirilenko ahead of tomorrow's showpiece meeting between Wozniacki, who beat Li in straight sets on Wednesday, and Zvonareva.
Maria Kirilenko eventually saw off American teenager Melanie Oudin, but it took her this many hours to do so: 2 1/2