Venus' footwork founders in Paris clay

PARIS -- The Williams sisters couldn't be more at home here in some ways, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the upscale 7th arrondissement around the corner from a pedestrian market street and not far from the Eiffel Tower.

Serena Williams bought the flat in 2007 and her sister and doubles partner Venus is bunking in with her for the fortnight. The two rented bikes and took a spin on the cobblestoned streets before the tournament began. Serena especially revels in what the city has to offer, from the world-famous fashion scene to the bakery where she buys her daily baguette. When a French reporter recently asked her to say a few words, she obliged with a gracious "Oui, si vous voulez, je vais essayer." (Yes, if you like, I'll try.)

But having a pied-a-terre in Paris doesn't guarantee success on the terre battue. The Williams sisters, who once played each other for the French Open title and have won three of the past four Grand Slams, are more off-balance at the French Open than at any other major these days. That trend was punctuated with an exclamation point by Venus' lopsided 6-0, 6-4 third-round loss to 29th-seeded Agnes Szavay of Hungary in windy conditions Friday. The first set shutout was Venus' first in a Slam in more than three years -- an unwelcome bagel in the country that invented croissants.

Among the stunned observers in the baseline seats was British legend Virginia Wade. "I've never seen her move more poorly," said the three-time Grand Slam winner, who noted that Williams seemed to alternate between sluggish and overanxious, failing to take advantage of the extra second clay accords a player and finding herself out of position or on top of balls with few options.

Richard Williams was blunt in assessing his daughter's play. "Venus' technique broke down," he said, striding away from Suzanne Lenglen Stadium. "She needed to understand what she was doing, and she didn't. She didn't move to one short ball, and she hit too many balls to [Szavay's] backhand. The other girl outplayed her."

It's been seven years since the sisters faced each other in the 2002 championship match won by Serena -- time enough, according to high school biology, for every cell in their bodies to be replaced. Serena reached the semifinals here the following season in 2003, but neither sibling has really threatened since.

If this tournament marked a fresh start of sorts physiologically, then Serena and Venus, second and third, respectively, in the WTA rankings, should have been energized by the opportunity that yawns wide amid the recent anarchy in the women's game. Coming in, each had a chance to ascend to No. 1 here. (The current tenant, Dinara Safina, will hold onto that spot if she reaches the finals.)

Serena's legacy here has been particularly mixed. The year after her championship, she came to grief in a contentious semifinal with Justine Henin that pivoted on a dispute over competitive etiquette; she skipped the tournament in 2005 and 2006 because of injury. In 2007, she ran into Henin, by then indisputably the best clay-court player of her generation, in the quarters. Last year, in a result that defied explanation, Serena went down flailing to 27th seed Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia in the third round.

Although Serena has won the past two majors, in New York and Melbourne, she limped into this event on a career-worst four-match losing streak. She struggled through an awkward, ugly first-round win against Klara Zakopalova and castigated herself afterward for playing "junior tennis."

"Couldn't you tell how tortured I was out there?" she said irritably during a postmatch interview. "I think my face said it all." She got back on track in the second round, washing her hands of Spain's Virginia Ruano Pascual 6-2, 6-0 in 57 minutes, and plays another Spanish woman, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, in the next round.

Venus has fared better on the dirt this year, winning an early season clay event in Acapulco and collecting three quality wins in Rome before Safina ousted her in the semifinals. But she looked unsure of her footing from the start here, a powerful gazelle reduced to a hesitant doe.

She took three sets to dispatch fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the first round and foundered against Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in her next match, losing the first set before play was suspended because of darkness. A listless-looking Venus simply nodded when tournament officials suggested it was time to stop, thus avoiding an instant replay of last year's debacle, when she played on in the gloaming without complaint and was eliminated by Italy's Flavia Pennetta in the third round.

When play resumed early Thursday afternoon, Venus dominated the second set against Safarova but had to fend off a match point in the third before prevailing.

The Williams' speed and power are muted by clay, so it's understandable that lesser grinders can test them. "It's easy for them to get down on this surface," said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. "They don't get anything from the crowd and it's a lot easier to get down mentally on clay. A good shot doesn't pay you the immediate dividends it does on the grass or the hard courts."

Venus might also be forgiven for looking past this event to Wimbledon, which she's now won five times and three of the past four years. She's not keen on dissecting why she hits the wall here. Asked point-blank what her "issue" is on clay, she responded in generalities.

"There's no excuses," she said after beating Safarova. "Got to play well every match. If you're not playing well, find a way, still, to win. It's as simple as that. … It takes a little bit of everything on this surface. Will and a little luck and some winners and some errors from your opponent. Most of all, you've got to do the right thing at the right time. Like every other tournament, championships don't come to you."

The sisters are still alive in the doubles draw, so Serena's guest room will be occupied for at least a little while longer. She told the French sports daily newspaper L'Equipe that she intends to buy a larger flat, learn to speak fluent French and live here part-time someday.

"People in the neighborhood are nice to me, they're starting to know me a little bit," she told reporter Alain Deflassieux. "It's not like when I go to the Champs Elysées, where I get stopped constantly. Here, I can drink a capuccino at the café like everyone else. I feel like I'm becoming a true Parisian."

Perhaps that comfort level will help this feel more like native soil.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.