WIMBLEDON: Venus Williams ambled onto sun-splashed Court 1 at Wimbledon on Thursday, a slight hitch in her step and an odd-looking wrap around her left knee. White tape here, brown tape there.
Luckily the five-time Wimbledon champion didn't need to run to hit serves. Powered in part by her powerful deliveries, Williams overwhelmed 73rd-ranked Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine 6-3, 6-2 in the second round to stretch her All England Club winning streaks to 16 matches and 27 sets.
Afterward, Williams was coy about the bandaging, saying it was "just for support." "I really hate tape - like, hate. But I just needed it this time. I accepted that, and I realise that this is Wimbledon. So since it was Wimbledon, I taped," said the American, trying to become the first woman since Steffi Graf in 1991-93 to win three consecutive titles at the All England Club.
Asked why she needed help for this match after not wearing anything on that leg in the first round Tuesday, Williams said: "Well, what happened was, I needed some support, and then I went and got the support, and then I wore it in the match. ... I mean, I think all the players might start wearing it, because it's so supportive." At last month's French Open, where Williams lost in the third round, her father, Richard, said she had pain in her left knee. Her mother, Oracene Price, wouldn't offer an explanation Thursday after watching Williams hit six aces at up to 119 mph against Bondarenko, saying only, "Maybe she'll tell you. I'm not going have her screaming at me." And with that, Price headed off to get a good spot to watch on Court 4, where Williams teamed with younger sister Serena later Thursday to reach the second round in doubles with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Virginie Razzano and Aravane Rezai of France.
The Great Tape Caper produced the closest thing to real intrigue Thursday at a tournament that has largely been devoid of surprises, other than Maria Sharapova's loss a day earlier. There were, however, two young American qualifiers who both made their way into the third round at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time: 17-year-old Melanie Oudin and 21-year-old Jesse Levinea.
"I'm still, like, trying to comprehend everything," said Oudin, who is ranked 124th and beat Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
The 133rd-ranked Levine, who was born in Canada and moved to Florida when he was 13, defeated Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay 6-2, 6-1, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3.
"He goes about it the right way. He's professional. He works hard," 2003 U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick said about Levine.
"You wish all the young guys kind of had his work ethic and professionalism." Roddick, twice a Wimbledon runner-up, got to the third round with a 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 win over Igor Kunitsyn of Russia. Playing on the grass that gives solid serves extra verve, Roddick hit 18 aces and faced break points in only one game.
"We're pretty even from the baseline. I can even say I might have a little edge on him," the 39th-ranked Kunitsyn said. "But his serve is a big advantage on these courts." Only one seeded player departed, No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro, and while his 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 loss to a man ranked 56th might ordinarily count as an upset, it wasn't necessarily all that shocking when you consider that man is Australia's Lleyton Hewitt. That's because the 28-year-old Hewitt was the 2002 champion at Wimbledon and reached at least the fourth round each of the past five years, while the 20-year-old del Potro never has been past the second round at the All England Club.
"He's one of my idols," del Potro said.
None of the top women were even tested on Day 4. Like Williams, No. 1 Dinara Safina and past major champions Svetlana Kuznetsova, Amelie Mauresmo and Ana Ivanovic all won in straight sets. There was, however, some wondering aloud by Safina and Kuznetsova about whether they were treated properly by organisers who shunted them off to smaller venues.
"Of course it's not fair," said Safina, who beat Rossana de Los Rios 6-3, 7-5 on Court 2, while No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki played 59th-ranked Maria Kirilenko on Centre Court.
Reigning French Open champion Kuznetsova, meanwhile, is seeded No. 5 but was on Court 3 on Thursday, two days after playing on Court 14.
"I'm fine to put me wherever they want. They don't have to put me Centre Court," Kuznetsova said. "But this is little bit weird."
Roddick is one of three U.S. men left - he, Levine and No. 28 Mardy Fish all attended Boca Prep International School - and Hewitt was the only Australian man who even entered Wimbledon. Andy Murray, as expected, is the last British player remaining in a tournament last won in the 1930s by a man from the host country, and he was impressive in beating Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 6-2, 7-5, 6-3.
How impressive? Murray made a grand total of five - count 'em, five - unforced errors, while producing 36 winners.
Just in case there were any doubts about how big a deal the third-seeded Murray's quest for a title is, get this: He was hand-delivered a letter from none other than Queen Elizabeth II, congratulating him on his recent victory at a grass-court tuneup tournament in London and wishing him luck at Wimbledon.
"Yeah, it's surprising," Murray said. "I mean, you don't get that every day."