- Whit Sheppard
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Say it ain't so, Venus.
Tell us last summer's thrilling Wimbledon victory over Lindsay Davenport was a springboard to a resurgent and hungrier Venus Williams who would accomplish great things in 2006. Tell us you're still determined to etch your name into the pantheon of all-time greats on the women's side by adding to your five Grand Slam titles.
And while you're at it, tell us that the Bulgarians don't have your number.
Instead, this is what you told us after your most recent surprising early-round loss at a Grand Slam, this time in the first round of the Australian Open to 94th-ranked Tszvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, 2-6, 6-0, 9-7, on Monday in Melbourne.
"I couldn't get it right today," Williams said. "This tournament's always a little tricky to get ready for because there's less time usually, and it seems I never really hit my peak here. I wish this tournament was in March. That would suit me really well."
For the time being, though, the Australian Open is a January fixture, and its early placement on the tennis calendar is conducive to early-round upsets like the one that Pironkova was able to pull off in the tournament's second-largest venue.
"I was [a] little nervous in the beginning of the match," Pironkova said. "And then when I sit down [for] the break between the sets, I said to myself, 'It's OK. You are here in the Vodafone Arena, this big court, you need to show some tennis to the audience. Just relax and play your game.' "
This latest shocking defeat marks the second time in less than a year that Williams' hopes for a sixth Grand Slam have been dashed by a Bulgarian. Recently suspended Sesil Karatantcheva eliminated Williams in three sets in a third-round match last year in the French Open at Roland Garros.
Pironkova, 18 -- coached by her father, who couldn't make the trip to Melbourne and watched the match on Bulgarian television -- benefited from a multitude of unforced errors from Williams in their second career encounter. Williams had beaten the Bulgarian in straight sets in Istanbul last May on clay.
It was a different story Monday afternoon as the 5-foot-11 Pironkova matched her much more experienced opponent shot-for-shot, betraying few traces of heroine worship, though she was playing a multiple Grand Slam champion whose career she followed on television for many years before becoming a Tour contemporary last year.
"I know Venus since long time from the TV when I just was a little kid," said the winner. "I always love her game. But when you go on court, I am a professional player already, so I should not think about that she was kind of my idol before. I just have to play tennis, and I did."
Pironkova served for the match at 5-3 in what turned out to be an 86-minute third set and was two points away from victory at 30-all. But Williams didn't go away quietly, breaking to get back on serve. The young Bulgarian knew that she had failed to take advantage of a great chance to capture the biggest win of her nascent career and advance to the second round.
"I felt a little bit that way," Pironkova said. "But this is tennis. Everything happens. I should not kind of leave the game because I lost my opportunity. Now she have her opportunity. She might lose it."
And lose it, she did, as Williams committed 41 of her 65 unforced errors in that marathon final set, spraying wayward shots all over the court when more patience from the baseline could have held her in good stead against a vastly less experienced player. Failing to serve out the match at 6-5 didn't help, either.
"I just was struggling to keep the ball in today. Just couldn't get it right," Williams said. "Obviously, she benefited from my largesse. You know, if I had just a third less errors, I think this match is a different story."
Williams' premature exit is her earliest at a Grand Slam since a first-round loss at Roland Garros in 2001 and continues her disappointing recent results Down Under. She reached the final in 2003, losing to sister Serena in three sets, but was bounced in the third round in 2004 and eliminated in the round of 16 last year.
For her part, Pironkova acted the seasoned veteran when asked afterwards if she was surprised to have come through.
"No, I can't say that's a surprise because I had terrific matches before," she said. "I also played very good before. It's not my first match that I played like that. But I can say truly I did my best today, and it gave the result."
Williams was somber but not totally downcast after the loss and says she can take some encouraging signs with her as she heads into a pivotal 2006 season with a lot of room left to run.
"I'm really disappointed, but I feel like in general I was in good form," Williams said. "I just somehow fell off my form. But it's the beginning of the year, and I feel like I still have a lot of success ahead of me. It's just my first event."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the Australian Open for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com