The match between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens was freighted with symbolism.
Would the outcome represent the ascension of the next Venus and coronation of the long-awaited, newest American tennis star?
Stephens defeated Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January. On Saturday at the Sony Open, it was her chance to go 2-0 against the sisters, her trailblazers.
But it was over before it began. Williams withdrew during her warmup session, citing lower back pain, and Stephens advanced without playing a point.
Fans were denied a neat illustration of the state of flux in American womens tennis, which was appropriate because there is nothing neat about Venus lingering viability and Serenas staying power.
Stephens, 20, may put together another major tournament run here if she gets past No. 4 seed Agnieska Radwanska on Monday but it wont be at Venus expense. Venus was again vanquished by injury. Health continues to be her toughest opponent.
Yeah, a little bummed, Stephens said of the non-match. I wouldnt say a letdown, but youre so ready to play and it was like, oh.
It was a letdown. The past few years of Venus career have been a letdown. Terrific spikes pepper her results, but the overall graph shows a downward trajectory. Nonetheless, she says she is not ready to retire.
Like pitcher Mariano Rivera, she has earned the right not to be pestered by retirement suggestions. Like him, she wants to go out at full strength. Unlike him, she hasnt declared a deadline for the public.
Perhaps she should consider one. Venus is 32 33 by the time Wimbledon starts. Its been two years since she was diagnosed with Sjogrens syndrome, an auto-immune illness that causes fatigue and joint inflammation. She deserves a proper farewell tour, not a pity party.
I have faced disappointments in my life and my career, she said Saturday. Its not the first, probably not the last. Just have to get through it and stay positive.
She and Serena won their fifth Wimbledon doubles title last year, but the five-time Wimbledon singles champ was eliminated in the first round in a singles match that was painful to watch. She looked tired and stiff yet afterward rejected any suggestion that she was in the twilight of her career.
I am a great player, she said after the loss. Unfortunately, I had to deal with circumstances that people dont normally have to deal with in this sport. But I cant be discouraged by that, so Im up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunity.
When she won the Luxembourg Open in October, it was her first WTA singles title in 2 1/2 years. It was the highlight of a year in which she couldnt get past the second round of any major tournament. She hasnt advanced past the fourth round of a Grand Slam since the 2010 U.S. Open, hasnt beaten a No. 1 player since 2009.
Last year, after a seven-month layoff, she was especially motivated to improve her ranking in order to compete in the Olympics, where she won a third doubles gold medal with Serena. This year?
Shes back up to No. 18 after dropping to No. 134 during an injury-marred 2011 and hoped to do well in her home tournament, where she was a quarterfinalist last year. Shes won it three times: In 1998, she beat Martina Hingis in the semis and Anna Kournikova in the final; in 1999, she beat Serena; and in 2001, she beat Jennifer Capriati. In 2010, she lost the final to Kim Clijsters.