PARIS - Whistles and whispers circulated through the stands at Court Suzanne Lenglen yesterday, a reaction brought about not by Venus Williams' play at the French Open, but rather by her outfit.
With a lacy, black overlay giving it the illusion of being see-through, and bright red trim on the bodice, Williams' corset-like get-up made her look as if she were ready to perform in a 19th century Parisian cancan chorus line. Her game, a mix of power and niftier-than-usual footwork, was very 21st century, and befitting a star of the show.
The red clay of Roland Garros never has been Williams' best stage - her seven Grand Slam titles all came at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. At this year's French Open, she is assured of at least one more performance, thanks to a 6-3, 6-3 victory over former top 10 player Patty Schnyder in the first round.
Williams explained that her look was "about illusion," which, she noted, is "a lot of my motif this year" when it comes to clothes design. She also said she might not wear that particular dress again on court. Then again, perhaps she will. She's not sure. Either way, Williams comes to a tournament with eight to 10 outfits, just in case the victories keep coming.
And she plans a lengthy stay in Paris this time around, perhaps capped by a title.
"I always - goes without saying - believe I can win," said Williams, whose biggest hitches were eight double-faults.
Williams lost in the third round at each of the past three French Opens and only once has been beyond the quarterfinals in 13 previous trips: She lost to younger sister Serena in the 2002 finals. Still, Venus' hitting partner, David Witt, said after the victory: "If she goes out there and is smart and plays smart tennis, I think she can win the tournament."
There are others who will have some say in that, of course, including defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who also won in straight sets, and the top-ranked Serena, whose first-round match is today. Venus is back at No. 2 in the rankings for the first time since May 2003.
"It feels good to be moving up the ranks. Obviously, when you get to 2, of course, the next dream is 1," Venus said.