WIMBLEDON, England >> For the first time since her debut appearance at the All England Club 15 years ago, five-time Venus Williams failed to get past the first round of Wimbledon.
The seven-time Grand Slam champion was eliminated 6-1, 6-3 by Elena Vesnina of Russia at Wimbledon on Monday, the latest setback in her return to tennis after being diagnosed with an energy-sapping autoimmune disease.
Williams, who has fallen to 58th in the rankings, lost the first five games on Court 2 to the 79th-ranked Russian and, although she picked up her game and fought hard, was never able to turn the match around.
It was the first time Williams lost in the opening round of a Grand Slam since the 2006 Australian Open— the first at Wimbledon since her debut appearance in 1997.
"I feel like I’m a great player," Williams said. "I am a great player. Unfortunately I have to deal with circumstances that people don’t have to deal with normally in a sport, but I can’t be discouraged by that. I’m up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunity."
There were no opening day troubles for top-ranked Novak Djokovic, six-time champion Roger Federer and No. 1 Maria Sharapova, who all enjoyed easy straight-set wins on a cloudy but dry start to the two-week grass court championships.
Defending champion Djokovic beat Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in the day’s first match on Centre Court, while Sharapova came on next and overpowered Anastasia Rodionova 6-2, 6-3.
Federer, seeking his record-tying seventh Wimbledon crown, dropped only three games in trouncing Spain’s Albert Ramos 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 on Court 1 — the first time since 2003 that he wasn’t assigned to Centre Court for the opening round.
Playing in her 16th straight Wimbledon, the 32-year-old Williams was unseeded for the first time since 1997. She was coming off a second-round loss at the French Open to Agnieszka Radwanska.
Williams revealed in late August at the U.S. Open that she had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition that can cause fatigue and joint pain. She skipped the Australian Open in January, before returning to the tour in March in a bid to earn a berth on the U.S Olympic team for the London Games.
"I’ve been through a lot for years without knowing what I was going through," she said. "It’s all a culmination at the end of the day. I just try to stay positive and focus on the tennis. I’m tough, let me tell you — tough as nails."
Williams has been champion or runner-up at the All England Club eight of the past 12 years, with her last title coming in 2008. The three losses in finals all came against younger sister Serena.
"I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself," she said. "I’m not going to give up on it. … There’s no way I’m going to just sit down and give up just because I have a hard time the first five or six tournaments back. That’s just not me."
The Olympic tournament will be played at Wimbledon three weeks after the end of the championships.
"At the Olympics, you’ll see me here," she said. "I’m planning on it."