NEW YORK (AP) — Her 2011 U.S. Open done and tennis future in doubt because of an immune system disease, Venus Williams rode away from Arthur Ashe Stadium in the back seat of a car a little before 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Inside, one young American, Christina McHale, was preparing to speak at a news conference about reaching the third round with a surprise victory over a past Grand Slam finalist. Another, Irina Falconi, was on court, starting a match that would end with her waving a giant U.S. flag to celebrate her own upset.
As those events unfolded — the most stunning, of course, being seven-time major champion Williams’ withdrawal shortly before her second-round match because of an illness she hadn’t previously disclosed — it was possible to see a symbolic shift for U.S. women’s tennis.
Williams revealed she recently was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, which doctors say is usually not life-threatening. The most common complaints are dry eyes and dry mouth; in rare cases, it can cause joint pain.
"I am thankful I finally have a diagnosis and am now focused on getting better and returning to the court soon," said Williams, who has played only 11 matches in the last 11 months.
Lately, as the 31-year-old Williams and 29-year-old sister Serena have dealt with health problems and played less frequently, people have wondered when — and perhaps whether — another American woman would make an impact in the sport. For one day, at least, McHale and Falconi did just that.
"I’ve heard so much about media talking about American tennis, and I really wanted to portray that there’s a huge wave of American players," Falconi explained when asked why she pulled out the flag she keeps in her bag. "I strongly believe in all that is USA, and I wanted to represent it and show the world that it’s coming. It’s coming. No need to wait any longer."
McHale, a 19-year-old from Englewood Cliffs, N.J., delivered a 7-6 (2), 6-2 victory over eighth-seeded Marion Bartoli of France, the runner-up to Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2007. Falconi, a 21-year-old who went to Georgia Tech, followed that up by beating 14th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 2-6, 6-3, 7-5.
"I think there’s a lot of American players — young American players — right now that are all kind of pushing each other. So I think it’s exciting," said McHale, who knocked off top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki at hard-court tuneup tournament in Cincinnati in August.
"We all push each other to want to do better," McHale.
She next meets No. 25 Maria Kirilenko of Russia, while Falconi will play No. 22 Sabine Lisicki of Belgium. Lisicki was supposed to play Venus Williams on Wednesday afternoon.
Lisicki said she saw Williams on the practice courts and in the locker room and expected to play their match — until the tournament referee passed along the news of the withdrawal.
"She’s a tough girl, and I think she’ll come back. You know, it would be unfortunate if she couldn’t," Lisicki said. "Serena and Venus both are amazing players, and it’s nice to have them in the women’s sport. I hope she comes back."
McHale and Falconi both advanced to the third round at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.
Falconi ended her match in style — and unbridled exuberance — running way wide of the court and nearly stumbling into a changeover chair to get to a ball that she whipped back for a cross-court forehand winner. She hopped in the air and pumped her left fist, then bounded onto the court yelling, "Come on! Come on!"
Yet another — and even younger — U.S. player almost joined them. But 16-year-old Madison Keys of Boca Raton, Fla., couldn’t quite pull it off, wasting a big lead and losing to 27th-seeded Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Among Wednesday’s other winners were U.S. men John Isner, Jack Sock, Robbie Ginepri and Alex Bogomolov Jr., along with 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, who didn’t try to defend his title last year because of a wrist injury. Two-time French Open semifinalist Robin Soderling of Sweden, meanwhile, pulled out shortly before his first-round match Wednesday, citing stomach pain and a headache.
No. 4 Andy Murray and No. 12 Gilles Simon advanced, while No. 10 Nicolas Almagro became the highest-seeded man to lose.
Women’s winners included No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, the runner-up at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 2010, and No. 9 Sam Stosur, who reached last year’s French Open final.
Wednesday’s night session featured 2003 champion Andy Roddick against Michael Russell, followed by 2006 champion Maria Sharapova against Anastasia Yakimova.
Williams’ departure added to the list of past Grand Slam champions who are gone early from the U.S. Open. Kim Clijsters, the winner at Flushing Meadows in 2009 and 2010, pulled out weeks ago, citing a stomach muscle injury; this year’s champions at Wimbledon (Petra Kvitova) and the French Open (Li Na) lost in the first round.
Williams arrived at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Wednesday hours before her match was scheduled to begin and tried warming up by hitting balls.
"All of us came with the full expectation she’d be playing today. She was geared up to play her match," said Williams’ agent, Carlos Fleming.
"I just hope she’s OK," Fleming added, "and I hope she’s healthy and going to be fine."