Venus hopes to have company this time around


By Bonnie DeSimone and Greg Garber, ESPN.com
PARIS -- Things have been bad enough for Americans on Parisian clay recently without the prospect of having them knock each other off the lower rungs of the bracket.

That's exactly what clicked into place after Monday's abbreviated session at Roland Garros, however, as Venus Williams and Ashley Harkleroad won first-round matches to set up their first meeting in three years.

"Last year, it was a big topic -- not as many Americans in the draw, not as many Americans being a threat for the title," Williams said Monday before the conclusion of Harkleroad's match. "I focus on me. That's all I can do. I can't make more Americans play or play better."

She would benefit if the balance of power between the two players looked like it did in 2004, when Williams twice steamrollered Harkleroad by identical scores of 6-1, 6-2 in their only career meetings, but both women's personal and professional landscapes have changed considerably since then.

Williams' last Grand Slam event title was at Wimbledon in 2005, which was also the year she won her last championship on clay, in Istanbul. She played sparingly last year because of injury and finished with her lowest ranking (No. 48) in 10 years.

The older of the two tennis-playing sisters won her first tournament back this season in Memphis but has not shown she can play consistently at her former level. She advanced with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over 17-year-old Alize Cornet of France, who was even with her at 4-all in the first set before Williams asserted herself.

Harkleroad's marriage to fellow pro Alex Bogomolov Jr. dissolved this past fall after less than two years, something she has spoken about frankly in the past few months.

"I think we were too young to be married," Harkleroad said with no rancor in her voice Monday. "And I think he's better off without me, also, because I don't think he was all that happy stuck in a small town in Georgia. And he's better off in Miami where he belongs, so I hope he's happy."

Once at home on clay -- she was the runner-up in the 2002 Junior French Open and is 4-0 in first-round matches at Roland Garros -- the 22-year-old Georgia native said she has developed a preference for hard court and grass as she has gotten older. She trains on the surface less and doesn't consider it a priority.

"The clay-court season, I'm just trying to hang in there and do the best I can," 80th-ranked Harkleroad said Monday after defeating Aleksandra Wozniak, the only Canadian woman in the draw.

Despite that modest expectation, Harkleroad doesn't view her match with Williams as a lost cause by any means. "I'm just sort of enjoying myself, and I think that she's not dominating like she used to, so it's better to play her now than then, right?" Harkleroad asked rhetorically.

Venus lost here in the quarterfinals to Nicole Vaidisova a year ago, but it was her best Grand Slam result in a season marred by elbow and wrist injuries. She played only six tournaments and 19 matches in 2006. Now, three weeks from her 27th birthday, she said she is healthy again.

"I feel good," said Venus, the No. 26 seed. "I think the most important thing is that I'm on tour, and as long as I'm tour, I feel like really good things can happen to me."

One not-so-good thing awaiting her if she continues to win is a potential semifinal matchup with sister Serena, who beat her in the 2002 French Open final. That collision course probably would involve getting past No. 4-seeded Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, one of the hottest players on the circuit, and No. 6-seeded Vaidisova in the quarterfinals.

Venus Williams memorably referred to herself as the lone American flag waving last year when she was the only U.S. standard-bearer left in the second week at Roland Garros.

"My focus is staying on [the women's] tour," Williams said. "And if I can do that, then the American flag should wave pretty nicely."


By Bonnie DeSimone
PARIS -- The first homeward-bound U.S. woman will be Jamea Jackson, who lost the first WTA-level match she has played since the fall in just 55 minutes, 6-1, 6-2, to hard-hitting 27th seed Samantha Stosur of Australia. Jackson, an eternal optimist, said she wasn't disappointed in her effort and is just glad she's pain-free and competing again after a longer-than-expected recovery from minor hip surgery in December.

"It may take me the rest of the year'' to come back fully, said Jackson, who played only one warm-up event, a lower-level tournament in Florida. "I'll just keep pushing myself." As for her future on the surface, "I'm training on clay more, liking it more and understanding it more. With my normal speed, I really have a chance to do some damage in this draw."