PARIS — Whistles and whispers circulated through the stands at Court Suzanne Lenglen on Sunday, 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 on this day, 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 of Switzerland 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 Sunday 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 final. Still, Venus' hitting partner, David Witt, said after Sunday's 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 Sunday, and the top-ranked Serena, whose first-round match is Monday. Venus is back at No. 2 in the rankings for the first time since May 2003, and was not shy about saying she wants to bump her sister off the top spot.
"It feels good to be moving up the ranks. Obviously, when you get to 2, of course, the next dream is 1," Venus said.
As for chasing Serena?
"When we're on the court, and when we're competing against each other, it's competition," Venus said. "Both of us feel that, you know: May the better player be the best."
Generally, the better players were, well, better than their opponents on Day 1 of the year's second Grand Slam tournament, when the sky was a cloudless blue and the temperature touched 80 degrees, making ice cream the snack of choice around the grounds.
Only one seeded man departed. No. 23 Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, who upset Roger Federer at Rome this month, stopped because of a right thigh injury while trailing Julien Benneteau of France 6-4, 6-2, 1-0. Two seeded women left: No. 10 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a quarterfinalist a year ago, lost to Gisela Dulko of Argentina 6-1, 6-2, and No. 20 Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain lost to Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan 6-2, 6-4.
Winners included 2009 runner-up Robin Soderling, who stunned four-time champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round last year; No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 10 Marin Cilic and No. 11 Mikhail Youzhny. Soderling won the first nine games and took 49 of 58 points on his serve en route to eliminating French wild card Laurent Recouderc 6-0, 6-2, 6-3.
Joining Kuznetsova in the women's second round were No. 15 Aravane Rezai, No. 19 Nadia Petrova, No. 26 Dominika Cibulkova and No. 30 Maria Kirilenko. Kuznetsova sputtered at the start against 2009 quarterfinalist Sorana Cirstea, losing the opening six points and falling behind 3-0, before reeling off nine games in a row.
Venus Williams' only real problems came at the very end against Schnyder, who fell to 0-11 against the American but certainly is no slouch, particularly on clay. The 31-year-old lefty from Switzerland has been a Grand Slam semifinalist, has been ranked No. 7, and leads active women in career clay-court victories.
She forced Williams to fend off three break points in the final game, and also made her accumulate four match points before finally ending things with a forehand winner.
"It's just too tough to really play good, and then on top of that, to beat her," Schnyder said. "She has a great answer to my lefty serve, she has the backhand down the line, which hurts me a lot, and she's a great mover."
That last part hasn't always been the case on clay, but the 29-year-old Williams had neither of her sometimes-bothersome knees wrapped Sunday. She covered the court quite well, both side-to-side and moving forward, which helped her win 12 of 14 points at the net.
It's part of a resurgence on the slow surface this season for Williams: She is 13-2 on clay.
"Look at her results," Schnyder said. "She's coming into the tournament playing good clay-court matches, winning clay-court matches."
And she's dressed for success, you might say.