|Flavia Pennetta rejoices after stunning Venus Williams to reach a rare milestone - the fourth round of the French Open. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)|
PARIS - Oracene Price, mother and coach to Venus and Serena Williams, stood near the steps to the locker room at the end of a long, rough day at the French Open.
First she watched eight-time major champion Serena lose a match that began a little after 11 a.m. Then she watched six-time major champion Venus lose a match that ended in near darkness, shortly before 10 p.m. Both sisters were stunned in the third round yesterday by journeywomen who never have been quarterfinalists, much less champions, at any Grand Slam tournament.
As Price consulted another daughter about the best way to leave the grounds, she paused for a moment, distracted by someone bounding up the stairs, two at a time. It was Flavia Pennetta, the Italian seeded 26th who beat Venus, 7-5, 6-3, and was headed toward her parents for hugs and kisses and a congratulatory call from Grandma.
"Did you see the match? Did you see the match?" Pennetta shouted loudly enough to be heard back home in Brindisi, at the heel of Italy's boot, without the help of a cellphone. "Don't cry!"
For days leading to these matching upsets, the Williams clan spoke - presciently, it turns out - about how tough it can be to play against less heralded opponents who want to make their mark by beating one sister or the other.
"They just have to learn how to do the rope-a-dope as they get older," Price said after Serena's 6-4, 6-4 loss to No. 27 Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia.
It was clear from listening to Pennetta and Srebotnik that they were thinking exactly what the women they beat figured.
"Today I woke up and, you know, it was just another opportunity. This is what you work so hard for - to be in third round where you play Serena or someone like that and you have really nothing to lose," said Srebotnik, who managed to reach the fourth round at a major only once before in 35 tries.
"If you win a match like that, you gain a lot, so I just took my chances."
Yesterday's surprises also mean there will be a first-time French Open women's champion. Serena, who beat Venus in the 2002 final, was the only past winner entered.
If Srebotnik befuddled Serena by repeatedly changing angles and speeds, Pennetta took a more unorthodox path to beating a Williams, hanging with Venus through long baseline exchanges. In the second set, as the light faded, Pennetta won 7 of the 10 points that lasted 10 or more strokes.
"I played a complete match in every way," said Pennetta, who lost in the first or second round in 14 of her previous 20 Grand Slam appearances.
There are no lights at Stade Roland Garros, and a player has the right to request that a match be suspended because of darkness.
Asked why she did not request the chair umpire to stop play, Venus said, "Because I didn't."
Serena went only 1 for 7 on break points, including 0 for 5 in the second set. She also lost 14 of the 21 points when she went to the net, thanks to some poor approach shots, shoddy volleying, and four passing winners off Srebotnik's racket.
"Once the ball was in the rally, I kind of saw it big, and I could pick a spot," Srebotnik said.
She repeatedly showed resolve, including while serving out the first set at 5-4.
Serena saved three set points there, but then set up a fourth when she ended a 14-stroke exchange by shanking a backhand volley several feet wide of the doubles alley. Serena put a palm up, then put her racket head down on the court and leaned her forehand on the end of the handle.
On the next point, Serena weakly put a backhand into the net, ending the set.
"I mean, to be honest, she did help me," Srebotnik said.
The second set featured more of the same: Srebotnik mixing speeds and Serena flubbing shots she usually puts away.
Serena had her last break chance at 4-3, and she gave it away by badly missing a drop shot. She tugged the brim of her beige ballcap low over her eyes, perhaps trying to hide the disappointment.
"I just missed some easy shots. I think that was the difference," Serena said. "And she made hers."
"It's like she wasn't there mentally. I'm really trying to figure this one out," Price said.
Serena stared blankly and spoke slowly during her postmatch news conference. She was asked if "puzzled" would describe how she felt.
"No, I'm not puzzled at all," she said. "I just don't want to be here."