Venus Williams’ campaign to win a clay court Slam took a respectable turn on Thursday when she overcame Tunisian qualifier Selima Sfar 6-2, 6-4 in the second round. Seventh seed James Blake however, America's greatest hope at the event, once again proved that he's a fish out of water on clay, falling in the second round 7-6(2) 3-6 7-5 6-3 to Latvian 19-year-old Ernests Gulbis.
Blake and his US compatriots had a terrific Wednesday with four of them winning matches but Thursday was another matter, when Blake often looked confused and played passively, while his compatriot, Bobby Reynolds, also fell, going down 7-5, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 to Ecuadorian veteran Nicolas Lapentti.
While world No80 Gulbis is considered a talented up-and-comer, he had only won back-to-back matches twice this year before arriving at Roland Garros. But he effectively cut loose against Blake, overwhelming him off the backhand side, serving bigger and more consistently, and confounding him with a series of well place drop shots.
“I think in any close match there are going to be opportunities going both ways,” Blake said. “He took advantage of his. I didn't take advantage of mine. The match was just poor, not within my game. I think I played the way too many commentators think I should play. Saying I probably didn't make very many errors, and I didn't hit that many winners. And that's the way a lot of them think I should play, and I think today was a good indication of that's not the way to win matches for me. I lost to a guy ranked No80 in the world. Granted, he didn't play like No80 in the world, he played better than that, but there are a lot of guys out there that can dictate play against me if I try to play like that.
That's just really frustrating for me to play a match like that when I know my game, I know what works best for me, and I didn't necessarily do it effectively today.”
Blake has only reached the third round once before, and with a reasonable draw that had him potentially facing world No3 Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals, it was thought that he could break the US second week drought. The fast American loves to dictate with his forehand and jump on return of serves, but on clay, he is nowhere near as consistent off the ground as at times, going for outright winners when he is out of position.
“The Americans a lot of times don't have the highest expectations on clay,” said Blake said, “but I really felt like this match today was a match I could have won and could have had some better success here at the French. I did okay at Rome, and felt like I could have done better this whole clay court season. But now the only option really is to forget about it, because I can't do anything to change it now.”
In what could have been an all-US match-up, Gulbis will now face Lapentti in the third round.
Women’s No8 Venus for her part will face Italian No26 seed Flavia Pennetta, who bested Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 3-6, 6-1, 6-1.
Williams has yet to discover her six-time Grad Slam winning form, having to seriously struggle to in the first round against Israeli Tzipora Obziler.
While Venus could have played a steadier match against Sfar, she mixed up her attack enough to confuse her foe, often throwing in effective net charges and staying solid form the baseline.
Venus, the 2002 finalist, won the match by crushing a forehand winner. “I feel like naturally I get better every round but I don't underestimate anyone just because they are not a name player,” Williams said.
She and Pennetta are locked at 1-1 in their head-to-heads, with the Italian veteran upsetting her last year in Bangkok. “It’s now or never,” said the 26-year-old Pennetta. ”This is the time in my career where I feel like can achieve the most. I'm totally focused on my tennis this year. She's a great champion and I have to make sure to cut down the angles of the court, because that where she's at her best, on the run.”