Venus playing catch up with Serena
Venus playing catch up with Serena
Matthew Cronin / ********************
There was a time when Venus and Serena Williams rarely played the same tournaments, but were usually around to support each other from the friend's box and at the practice court.
Now when the two see each other, it's mostly at tournaments they are playing together. Serena spends most of her off time at her swank Beverly Hills condo, while Venus lives in their quieter mansion in South Florida. They are still close, but have naturally grown apart, off court and on.
Had Serena deemed the French Open a worthy event to go to war at, she would be in Paris this week, too, but her twisted ankle is sore and she's out of shape, so she pulled out of the tournament and went to Florida in hope of sculpting her body back in shape for a run at a third Wimbledon title.
Venus is in Paris without her sister and maybe that's a good thing. For a while there, she didn't mind playing in the shadow of her younger sister, who in the flash of diamond-studded naval ring, passed her sister in overall Grand Slam titles with seven to Venus' four.
Venus hasn't won a Slam crown since the 2001 US Open, while Serena has won six majors since then. The older sister has become the lesser sister. While on a familial level, the loving older sister can put up with that, on a personal level, she doesn't like being second best, let alone the 11th seed at the French Open, which is where she stands today. Don't tell her she has no shot at winning the title.
Venus Williams isn't being given much chance to win the French Open. Not that she cares. (Francois Mori / Associated Press)
"I try not to listen to the talk because everyone can talk, but there's few who can walk the walk," she said. "So to all those people who aren't playing, I pay no mind. It's more important from me to be out there doing my thing. Whatever everyone else is saying is blasé spirit."
Loose translation — bad karma for planet Venus.
On Monday, Venus won her fifth straight match on clay, taking down Marta Marrero 6-3, 6-2 in the first round. Last week, she won her first tournament in nearly 14 months at a small event in Istanbul, where she beat up the talented Czech teen, Nicole Vaidisova, in the final.
It was the first time since she took down Serena in the Miami quarterfinal back in late March when Venus had showed decent form. But in Miami, Maria Sharapova out-shrieked Venus in the semifinals, sending Williams into a tailspin for the next month.
Just before the Fed Cup, Venus complained of burnout, but played (and won) two matches there anyway, subbing for the injured Serena. She took five weeks off after that and returned last week, aiming to prove that she's still has a grip on her ambitions, still wants it bad enough, and still has a champion's mettle.
"I was always raised to go for the gold," she said. "The sky's the limit. I don't put any limits on myself. I would only live with regrets if I had that."
Both US Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe and ESPN analyst Mary Carillo believe that Venus is done as a top-three player. McEnroe thinks that Venus can still win another Slam, but Carillo isn't even convinced of that. McEnroe rightly points out that Venus has tremendous technical problems in her forehand and serve that other players have learned to exploit.
When Venus was a dominant player in 2000 and 2001, she didn't have those problems. Today, her forehand and serve tend to break down under pressure against elite players. However, she believes that her coaches, her mother Oracene and her father, Richard, have the proper handle on how to solve those problems, even though almost any coach you talk to will say that she needs to bring in an outside consultant. Her Fed Cup captain and friend, Zina Garrison, says that like many players, Venus needs a different voice once in a while advising her on what to do. After 24 years, Oracene and Richard's voices must occasionally sound like elevator music.
But Venus is stubborn and won't hear of it. She'll defend her parents' coaching within in an inch of her life and gets extremely defensive when she's asked about it. She says that there's only a small list of people who she listens to.
"I can count on one hand (the people I listen to)," she said. "My sisters, my parents, someone like Zina and Billie (Jean King). Other than that I prefer that everyone else kind of ..."
Venus is almost no one's favorite to win the Roland Garros. She had a stroke of fortune of Monday when defending champion Anastasia Myskina lost, which means that she won't have to face a higher seed until at least the quarterfinals, when Elena Dementieva could be waiting. But she also has a dicey second-round matchup against a clay court specialist, former top-20 player Fabiola Zuluaga of Columbia.
By all rights, if Venus rushes the net enough and doesn't play too wildly from the backcourt, she could be a factor in this tournament. But she's been so inconsistent over the past year that it's hard to figure which Venus will show up. Will it be the one with the wandering attention span we've known since Serena became queen of the sport, or the cold-blooded killer who once faced down a chest-bumping Romanian at the US Open when she was just a babe in the New York woods back in 1997? Venus hopes it's the latter.
"My goal is always to be in the final and hold the trophy," she said. I have big dreams for this tournament."