So much for the thought that this might be the year Venus Williams would make a strong showing at the French Open. So much for the thought that she and her younger sister Serena, the tournament's two top-seeded women, could deliver another all-Williams Grand Slam final.
Displaying little of the spark or strokes she regularly produces on grass and hard courts, and playing little like someone with the tour's best 2010 winning percentage, Williams stalled on the red clay of Roland Garros yet again on Sunday, exiting in the fourth round with a 6-4, 6-3 loss to No. 19 Nadia Petrova.
"I don't think the conditions are always ideal here. ... You might not be used to it or you might not get a good bounce," said the No. 2-seeded Williams, who began the day 29-4 this season, including 15-2 on clay. "That's just the way this tournament goes."
All of the American's seven major titles have come at either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, and only once has she made it to the semifinals in 14 French Open appearances _ back in 2002, when she lost to Serena in the championship match.
Williams complained about the temperatures in the 50s (low teens Celsius) and swirling winds that reached 15 mph (25 kph), and wore a long-sleeved top over her much-discussed black lace dress. She didn't exactly heap praise on Petrova, now a win away from reaching her third French Open semifinal.
"I don't think she did anything super-special," Williams said, "but she just played a little bit more consistently." Actually, Petrova concurred with that assessment, calling her own play "solid."
"I came up with the good shots when it was necessary," she said. "That's it. I don't think I've done anything spectacular today."
Petrova will face No. 5 Elena Dementieva in an all-Russian quarterfinal. Dementieva ended the surprising stay of 131st-ranked qualifier Chanelle Scheepers, the first South African woman in the fourth round at Roland Garros since 1997, by winning 6-1, 6-3.
Petrova was 0-4 previously against Williams, and had developed a reputation for having trouble closing out matches, but she derived confidence from two recent victories: against Serena on clay at Madrid this month, and against No. 15 Aravane Rezai in the third round at Roland Garros.
In the latter, Petrova wasted three match points before eventually coming through 10-8 in the third set, something the Russian called "a big step forward."
On Sunday, Petrova finished with a 22-15 edge in winners and saved six of the seven break points she faced. Most impressively, she steeled herself after getting broken to fall behind 2-0 in the second set."I kept my nerves calm," Petrova said.
Two points from victory, she took aim at what appeared to be an easy overhead putaway. Instead, she shanked it off her racket's frame, sending the ball into the seats behind the baseline. A point later, Petrova netted a forehand. But she recovered, and two points later, she smacked a forehand winner to end it.
Williams is still in the women's doubles tournament with her sister, but it seems likely that her participation in this French Open will be remembered more for a sartorial statement than any spectacular strokes.
Even Petrova weighed in. "I must say: The dress that Venus wore _ you must have a little guts to do that," she said. Williams designed the corset-like outfit that drew so much attention, and said she'll "retire" it after this event. That doesn't mean she won't come up with something else buzz-worthy. "Each and every day, on and off the court, on the match court and the practice court, I'm always pushing the envelope," Williams said. "But, you know, I have to wait until next year." A familiar refrain for her at Roland Garros.