NEW YORK – Venus Williams stayed in the crowded hunt for the No. 1 ranking — even though she had no idea that she has a shot at that spot.
Johanna Konta, a Wimbledon semifinalist just last month, dropped out of that chase with a first-round exit as the U.S. Open got started Monday.
The No. 9-seeded Williams overcame a mid-match lapse to pick up a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory in Arthur Ashe Stadium against Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia, a 19-year-old qualifier who is ranked 135th.
It was the first tour-level, main-draw match of Kuzmova’s career, and the 967th for Williams, who won the title at Flushing Meadows in 2000 and 2001, in addition to her five Wimbledon championships. Williams is in her 19th U.S. Open; she reached the final in her 1997 debut, about eight months before Kuzmova was born.
“I had no idea what she looked like, who she was, anything. But she played amazing. She played well, served well, competed well. Definitely a match I had to earn,” said Williams, who at 37 is the oldest woman in the field. “I definitely wasn’t expecting or planning on dropping sets today. But things happen. That’s why we play the match, because you have to win the match. So it’s just all about regrouping. It’s the first round. You figure out what’s going on.”
She was up a set, plus a break in the second at 2-0, when she faltered. Kuzmova broke for 2-1, then pulled at even at 3-all before taking three games in a row to force a third set. But Williams righted herself there, breaking for a 2-0 lead, then digging out of a love-40 hole with five consecutive points for 3-0 and was on her way.
Williams entered the U.S. Open as one of eight women with a chance to rise atop the WTA rankings by tournament’s end.
Not that it was foremost on her mind. Indeed, she said she was unaware of that possibility.
“I just want to win, and if you get the win, you get the ranking,” said Williams, who was already at No. 1 in 2002.
Before the American’s match was over, that number of ranking contenders was reduced to seven, because the No. 7-seeded Konta was bounced by 78th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” said Konta, who was a semifinalist at Wimbledon just last month. “I think it would be quite obnoxious of me to come in here expecting I have a right to be in second week.”
Konta, who lost to Williams in the Wimbledon semifinals, figured to be Britain’s best chance for a deep run these two weeks, because the country’s top male player, Andy Murray, withdrew on Saturday with an injured hip.
Instead, she was among a crop of seeded players on the way out the door at a tournament already missing several top names, including the biggest in women’s tennis: Williams’ older sister Serena, who is expecting a baby.
“We always coach each other, pretty much,” Williams said.
While the most anticipated matchup of Day 1 was scheduled for Monday night — five-time major champion Maria Sharapova’s first Grand Slam action since her doping suspension, against No. 2 seed Simona Halep — the afternoon was filled with quite a few seeded players joining Konta on the way out.
For every victory by someone such as Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza or 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, there was a surprise or two.
The men’s seeded losers included No. 21 David Ferrer, who was the runner-up at the 2013 French Open, No. 25 Karen Khachanov and No. 32 Robin Hasse. On the women’s side, there as No. 21 Ana Konjuh, No. 24 Kiki Bertens and No. 32 Lauren Davis.