Venus sets record with 129-mph serve; Serena sails
Posted: Monday August 27, 2007 9:50PM; Updated: Monday August 27, 2007 11:27PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- Venus and Serena Williams carry Althea Gibson's legacy forward every time they step on a court, every time they hoist a Grand Slam trophy.
So on a night set aside to honor the 50th anniversary of the first U.S National Championship title for a black tennis player, the Williams sisters figured the best way to celebrate Gibson was to win.
Simple as that, they did.
Venus Williams beat Kira Nagy of Hungary 6-2, 6-1 in the first round of the U.S. Open on Monday -- and hit a Grand Slam-record 129 mph serve in the process. Serena Williams topped out at 126 mph and had only slightly more trouble getting past Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-3, 7-5.
"I have all the opportunities today because of people like Althea," Venus Williams said. "Just trying to follow in her footsteps."
The siblings narrated a video that opened the tribute to Gibson, who was the first black man or woman to enter (in 1950) and to win (in 1957) Wimbledon and the tournament that's now called the U.S. Open.
In 1999, Serena Williams became the first black woman since Gibson to win the U.S. Open. The next year, Venus Williams became the first black woman since Gibson to win Wimbledon.
Aretha Franklin sang, actress Phylicia Rashad emceed, and Rachel Robinson -- baseball barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson's widow -- was in the audience Monday as the late Gibson was inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions.
"It was definitely a tough act to follow. ... It was really moving," said Venus Williams, limited by wrist and knee problems to only one tournament since winning Wimbledon in early July.
"It's like, 'OK. Williams can't lose tonight. That's not part of the plan. It's supposed to be an all-American win tonight.' I was definitely thinking that."
It actually was a pretty good day for Americans, including Ahsha Rolle, a 22-year-old playing in her third Grand Slam match. She surprised No. 17-seeded Tatiana Golovin of France 6-4, 1-6, 6-2, also under the lights.
"I was watching a little bit of the (Gibson) tribute. I thought that of all the nights, I've got to do it tonight," Rolle said. "I wasn't scared, I wasn't nervous. I was ready to bring it."
So was John Isner. Nothing about him is subtle. Everything about him is super-sized, from his 6-foot-9 frame to his 140 mph serves.
Add in large expectations, too, which will only increase now that Isner played the very first Grand Slam match of his nascent career Monday and won it. Fresh out of college, Isner smacked 34 aces to knock off 26th-seeded Jarkko Nieminen of Finland 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-4.
"It's a huge step for me," said the 22-year-old Isner, who led Georgia to the NCAA tennis title. "To be able to beat a guy like that means a lot, says a lot: No matter who I'm playing, seeded or not ... I feel like I can go out there and compete."
Joining him in the second round was another young American who needed a wild card to get into the year's last major tournament: Donald Young, the Wimbledon junior champion, who recently snapped an 0-for-11 drought in tour-level matches.
Young remembered writing a biography about Gibson when he was in sixth grade, which actually wasn't all that long ago. He turned 18 last month and is signed up for the U.S. Open junior tournament next week.
"When you play out here, there's not that much pressure, because I'm (ranked) like 200 in the world, and everybody's top-100," the No. 223 Young said after eliminating No. 93 Chris Guccione of Australia 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. "I'm not supposed to win."
People such as No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 1 Justine Henin are, and on Monday they did, rather easily. Both advanced in straight sets, as did No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko, who then talked about the gambling probe surrounding a match he played early this month.
"It's pretty tough, mentally, to play," said Davydenko, a semifinalist last year, who encountered little trouble in a 6-4, 6-0, 6-1 victory over Jesse Levine, another American wild card.
Nieminen prepared to face Isner by having practice partners move all the way up from the baseline to the service box to hit serves. It didn't help much.
Here's how Isner began: 125 mph ace, 114 mph second-serve service winner, 135 mph ace, 137 mph serve that was returned before Nieminen eventually netted a forehand. Four points, all to Isner, and a trend was set.
"Let's go, Izzy!" came a yell from the stands at Louis Armstrong Stadium, where a partisan crowd was certainly on his side.
Another instructive moment came at 4-4 in the first set, when Isner faced his first break point at 30-40. Here's what he came up with: 135 mph ace, 136 mph ace, 124 mph ace. Bingo! Service game held. By the end, Isner had faced seven break points -- and saved all of them. He only earned three break points, all in the final set, but he converted the one he needed with a backhand return winner in the seventh game.
Isner is far from a complete package -- his groundstrokes can look awkward, his volleys can fly all over the place, his footwork is not fully refined.
But Isner does have that special serve. He hit 144 aces in five matches en route to reaching the final at his second tour event, on hard courts at Washington this month.
"He's obviously a guy that you don't want to play. He's one of those guys in the draw you don't want any part of," said seven-time major champion John McEnroe. "He's 6-9, huge serve -- it's crazy to play a guy like that. You're not used to that. He seems like he's a late developer, but he could be a real force."
While Young next faces No. 13 Richard Gasquet -- who compared the kid's game to former No. 1 Marcelo Rios and said, "His progress is incredible" -- Isner gets 146th-ranked qualifier Rik de Voest of South Africa.
Isner hadn't heard of de Voest. He does know a thing or two about his possible third-round opponent, though: Federer, bidding to become the first man since the 1920s to win this major four consecutive years.
"I wouldn't have believed it a month ago," Isner said with a smile. "I'm not in any position where I can look ahead. Maybe he can, but not me."
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.