Serena Williams saved family honour after her elder sister, defending champion Venus, stumbled on the opening day of the Sony Ericsson Championships.
Duelling with Russian Dinara Safina for the tenuous world No.1 ranking, Serena beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-6 (8-6), 7-5 in her first group match at the year-end championship.
Venus choked while serving for a straight-set victory to open the door for Russian Elena Dementieva’s 3-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 victory.
The Maroon group round-robin win was the first in that series for Dementieva since 2005 and ended a run of seven straight losses to the five-time Wimbledon champion American. The Russian stands 4-10 in the series.
Dementieva broke more ground as she played in her 22nd match at a season wrap-up event, overcoming 15 double-faults as her old serving demons returned in the struggle for two hours and 40 minutes.
Williams saved match points on her own serve in the seventh game of the third set but couldn’t stop Dementieva from serving out the victory.
Williams looked to have the win in hand, leading by a set and 6-5. But a double-fault threw her Russian opponent a lifeline, with Dementieva taking the set into a tiebreaker.
Venus opponent saved three set points, but a fourth Williams’ double-fault brought on the deciding third set.
Dementieva was pleased with her own fortitude. “It’s such a long time since I’ve beaten her. I’m happy about it,” she said. “I just fought for every point. It was very emotional.”
Both Williams sisters must next play in group matches, which promises to be a survival situation for both this week. Serena Williams was due to try to save family honour when she faced Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, the French Open champion.
Off-form Jelena Jankovic lost serve five times as the former number one took a 6-2, 6-3 loss against Victoria Azarenka. The Serb fell to 0-1 in the White group, with Miami winner Azarena taking command after her victory in less than 90 minutes.
“I basically gave her everything,” said Jankovic. “I beat myself. I was just a shadow of myself. Sometimes you want to play your best, but it just doesn’t happen. I just hope I can play better tomorrow, and I’ll keep trying my best in this whole competition.”
Azarenka was having none of the head games: “I’m glad she wasn’t in the mood. It worked out fine for me. I haven’t played in a tournament for a while,” said the second-round loser a fortnight ago in Beijing. “I felt pretty good out there.”
Last week in Moscow, Jankovic scraped into the last spot in the eight-woman field at the year-end event but had little to show on court.
Azarenka took her second win from five matches against Jankovic as the Serb committed 33 unforced errors. The 20-year-old winner, ranked sixth, served out the victory without an ace but lost serve only once.