Queen of the green
Her joyous celebration after her dramatic victory in last year's final was one of the high points of the 2005 Championships - and now, in a happy frame of mind despite sister Serena's absence, she has her eyes firmly set on a fourth title
Sunday June 25, 2006
A year ago, Venus Williams jitter-bugged up and down on the Centre Court after winning her third Wimbledon singles title in the longest women's final in the history of the Championships. Back again to defend the title, she is almost horizontal as, relaxed in an all-white tracksuit, she recalls her dance of joy.
'It's not often you get those heroic moments and for me if I get one I'm going to enjoy it,' she says of her celebration after coming through 9-7 in the third to beat the top seed, Lindsay Davenport. 'It wasn't that I didn't expect to win. Obviously I have the skills and the game. It was just the circumstances. If I had won 6-3 6-4 I would have been very excited but it was just the whole dramatics of it all made me more exuberant.'
She may not have not expected to win but such had been her form before the tournament that she was the longest price a Williams has been to win Wimbledon for many a year. This year, however, she reached the quarter-finals of the French and with so many of her rivals sidelined the defending champion should be favourite to win her fourth championship instead of 15-2 on *******.
She arrived last Wednesday and as usual saw no need for a preparatory tournament. 'I like the grass and have no problem getting straight into the swing of it. I guess growing up playing on public courts helped.'
The oddity about this year's women's tournament is that with Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport absent, it is Venus who is the sole realistic American challenger. 'I don't know what's wrong with American tennis. If I knew I'd tell you the secret. I don't know what's going on. I hope there will be some resurgence and I can carry the flag and Serena will be back quite soon and we'll both make some waves.' She knows when that will be but she is not telling. 'If you want to schedule an interview with Serena good luck to you.' The expectation is it will be in mid July in Cincinnati, or Cinci as they call it.
When Serena comes back things inevitably will be harder for her big sister. Indeed, if Venus had been playing anyone other than her sibling in the finals in 2002 and 2003 it is highly probable she would now be going for a sixth Wimbledon singles title and attempting to equal Billie Jean King's record for a native-born American.
At that time it seemed that Venus was ready to vacate the stage to Serena in order to take to the catwalk. She had lost four of the five previous grand-slam finals to her sister and at Wimbledon she duly lost a fifth. Instead of giving an interview at Wimbledon, as she does this year, she strutted her stuff alongside Diane von Furstenberg at a chichi Knightsbridge hotel as the pair launched Rbk by DvF. Then she had seemed on the verge of concession, talking about how she had been the natural but Serena had the power. Venus had paved the way, so she could depart with dignity.
Instead, it was Serena who faltered, overtaken by Belgians and -ovas, and Venus only flickered. Since the start of 2004, she has won just four titles, including last year's Wimbledon, to take her total to 33. Yet asked if the run of defeats against Serena took any edge off her game, she is uncharacteristically defensive. 'Hey, I was in the final. Whenever you are in the final you are almost there. Being in finals continuously gives you the opportunity.' Perhaps, but it is a fact that, not having taken any of those five opportunities, seven grand slams passed before she gained another.
Now she seems less inclined to let opportunities pass. 'I have this full-time job slash lifestyle because tennis definitely has a lifestyle dedicated to it,' she says. 'You can always get better. If you stay at the same level you have a problem because everyone else will overtake you. I know I have an opportunity to do great things on the court and I have to take those opportunities. When I'm playing well it is huge fun, and when I'm not I have to work harder and harder.'
Asked if ever for a moment she thinks she may have already played her best, she replies quickly with an 'Oh no, oh no.'
Her confidence is such that she is going after more than one title this year: '2006 Wimbledon is my first ambition and I really want to win the mixed.'
'Who will be her partner?'
'I don't know. I gotta figure it out. There are three on the shortlist and I don't know what to do. I'm so confused that I need to call Serena to see what she thinks because I'm vacillating. It's not like a dance because you can dance with all three and see which one dances the best. Last year I played with Mark Knowles and went out in the second round.'
If Serena were here she would be going for a hat-trick of titles. 'I only play women's doubles with Serena. Once you've played with her you don't want to play with anyone else. She's awesome. You can play bad the whole time and she'll carry you. And likewise I'll carry her if she plays bad.'
The ordering here is in part down to modesty and in part self-awareness. When the two of them are at the top of their game it is the younger one who prevails. When they are both at a tournament they have more fun. 'We've got a smaller house,' she says. 'It's a lot quieter. There's less nonsense in the house.'
There are two other former champions in the field this year, but question marks over both of them - more obviously with Martina Hingis, who has come back from retirement, won as long ago as 1997 and has not played at Wimbledon since 2001. Then there is Maria Sharapova, who won two years ago but was beaten by Venus in the semi-finals last year in the best match of the tournament. The Russian may not be as good as those who profit from her good looks would have us believe.
Among those hoping for their first title, a Belgian, a Russian and a Czech stand out. Justine Henin-Hardenne has played many brave matches at Wimbledon (and comes in after a good win at Eastbourne yesterday) but is liable to a hiccup - she lost to Eleni Danilidou of Greece in the first round last year - and may not have the stamina or consistency to win seven matches on the bounce. Svetlana Kuznetsova has won a US Open and is in form but may not be quite good enough. Finally, there is Nicole Vaidisova who may knock the World Cup Wags off the front of the tabs for a day or two but at 17 probably lacks the self-belief at this stage of her career.
As is often the case at Wimbledon, it is wisest to back previous winners and of them a seemingly very motivated Venus Williams looks the best bet. Once, when asked if it was more important for her to be liked as a person or a tennis player, she replied: 'Wasn't that the chief theme of Death of a Salesman? To be well liked? I think you've got to like yourself first.' And at the moment she seems happier with herself than for a while.