The BNP Paribas Open takes place from March 4-17, 2019.
Tennis fans saw something you almost never see in a first-round match on the first Thursday of the BNP Paribas Open — Venus Williams.
And they were treated to a classic example of a champion’s mettle, as Williams gutted out an unusual 6-4, 0-6, 6-3 victory over Andrea Petkovic of Germany.
Williams, at 38, the oldest female player in the tournament, struggled physically in some ways during the match. She received medical attention while leading 5-4 in the first set against Petkovic. During that change-over, the on-court trainer put what appeared to be a blood pressure cuff on Williams’ arm.
She continued to play and served out the first set to win 6-4, but in the second set, she was moving very slowly between points, sometimes stopping to stare at the ground, before continuing. The miles per hour of her first serve decreased noticeably and she just wasn’t able to play like the seven-time major champion she is.
Williams was not specific about that medical timeout, but said being back on the court after a long layoff was difficult. This was only her seventh match in 2019.
“I haven’t played in forever and so that was challenging in itself to get back into competition,” said Williams, whose last match was Jan. 19 when she lost in the third round at the Australian Open to Simona Halep. “But also it was very sunny out there, and every time you changed sides, it was a little bit different and also (the wind) started swirling so it was tough out there.”
Sure enough, with Williams dragging a bit, Petkovic cruised to a 6-0 win in the second set. It looked dire for Williams, but you don’t win 779 career matches by accident.
Perhaps channeling a Muhammad Ali style rope-a-dope, Williams may have been conserving her energy in the latter stages of the second set. Once the third and deciding set started, she seemed energized. Some velocity was back and she seemed to be moving more freely during and between points.
Williams broke Petkovic to start the third set and won her service game easily. All the momentum immediately shifted. Petkovic started making errors, Williams started hitting winners and earned a victory that seemed unlikely only 30 minutes prior.
“At first it was good to be back here and have the crowd behind me, and she was really tough and consistent and tough to get any balls past her,” Williams said. “I’m just happy things went my way in the third set. It got really close there.”
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When an unforced error by Petkovic finally secured the match for Venus, the 38-year-old Williams walked slowly to the net for a handshake and then raised her arm over head and did a muted turn, thanking the Indian Wells crowd that helped push her to the victory.
“Every day isn’t your best day out there,” she told the crowd after the match. “But your heart and desire are still there.”
Williams will now face No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova on Saturday in the second round.
Williams, who has recently fallen to No. 36 in the world, was not among the protected 32 seeds and had to play in a first-round match, something she has not had to do much over her decorated career.
This is Williams’ eighth time playing at Indian Wells (remember she had a 15-year absence) and it’s only the second time she’s been unseeded. The other was when she made the event as a qualifier 23 years ago in 1996.