Venus Williams lifts her game in attempt to rise back to top at Wimbledon
Updated 6/26/2006 7:29 AM ET
By Doug Robson, Special for USA TODAY
LONDON — For Venus Williams, grass is greener.
A dozen years into her future Hall of Fame career, Williams doesn't snap up titles like she used to — she's won five in 34 months.
Her 6-1 frame has repeatedly broken down with injuries stretching from her stomach to a knee to, most recently, an elbow.
A dilettante interior designer and author — and no stranger to the celebrity circuit — her commitment to the game has periodically come into question.
But on the manicured lawns of Wimbledon, where Williams launches her bid Tuesday for a fourth title after a surprise championship run in 2005, the small fissures in her mental and physical game wash away.
"Once she hits the blades, she's a totally different player," TV commentator Mary Carillo says. "It not only lifts her game, it seems to lift her spirit and confidence level."
The 26-year-old American doesn't disagree.
"It seems like my game goes to another level here," says Williams, who also held up the winner's plate at Wimbledon in 2000 and 2001. "Basically, I feel like my shots are so penetrating and strong on that grass court."
Defying the critics
Williams showed up here a year ago as an afterthought. Dominated by her younger sister, Serena, and sidelined for significant stretches, Williams hadn't won a major in nearly four years.
Her serve and forehand, always error-prone in periods, seemed to go off with increasing regularity. Just before Wimbledon, Williams came unglued in a loss to Sesil Karatantcheva, 15, in the French Open.
Then Williams, seeded an unsightly No. 14, found her mojo. After a shaky first week, she played the fearless, aggressive style that had propelled her to the No. 1 ranking in 2002.
Blasting from the baseline and chasing down balls in the corners, Williams swept aside defending champ Maria Sharapova of Russia in the semifinals and then saved a match point at 5-4 in the third set to beat top-seeded Lindsay Davenport 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 9-7.
The 2-hour, 45-minute match was the longest women's final in Wimbledon history. The joy Williams showed jumping up and down during the trophy presentation had the look of a player shedding years of frustration.
"Now I'm embarrassed to look at (the tape) because I just was out-of-control excited," Williams says. "It was crazy. It was just such a hard-fought match, a hard-fought fortnight. Every match I played I had to give 100%."
As her 10th Wimbledon begins, the five-time Grand Slam champion again arrives in southwest London with more questions than answers in a championship that many consider wide open.
She has played only three events since being bounced in the first round of the Australian Open in January.
A strained ligament in her right elbow put her season on ice until April, and her record stands at 10-4 with no titles.
In the French Open this month, Williams was the only American in either field to reach the quarterfinals, but an erratic three-set loss to rising Czech star Nicole Vaidisova showed she was not in top form.
Like her quickness on the court, Williams has an uncanny ability to suddenly lock into championship form.
"Fast is my nature," she says.
That's particularly the case on the slick grass at Wimbledon, where her flat shots, wingspan and powerful serve all become bigger advantages.
"She showed last year that the two aren't necessarily related," Carillo says of Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
Since 2000, Williams has reached at least the final here every year except 2004. That year she suffered a second-round exit to Karolina Sprem of Croatia when umpire Ted Watts mistakenly awarded Sprem an unearned point in the deciding tiebreaker of a 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6) loss.
She is 46-8 on grass in her career, an .852 winning percentage.
"More than any other surface, grass helps her game straighten out," Carillo says.
'Always a threat'
Certainly no one is taking her lightly.
"As we saw last year, in Australia for Serena and then at Wimbledon for Venus, they are capable of suddenly" coming back and playing their best tennis, says top-seeded Amelie Mauresmo of France. "They're always a threat."
Adds Sharapova, "Definitely, whenever you play against (Venus), you can never underestimate her game."
Indeed, what is most frustrating and fascinating for opponents and fans alike is that, with the Williams sisters, consistency and caprice coexist seamlessly. One minute they are winning Slams; the next they are ousted in the first round or absent for long stretches.
The key to another championship? Williams, who is seeded five places above her ranking at No. 6, says it's a combination of desire, aggressiveness and tunnel vision.
"Last year I was extremely focused," she says. "I think the reason I was able to take the title is that I wanted it more than anyone and I was able to do the right things at the right times no matter what the circumstance. That's the way I'm hoping to go into this championship, with that kind of mind frame.
"The champions are the ones that make something happen," she says. "They are the ones that press the issue. I think aggressive, consistent play is just very important for me to win a fourth title."
A little support from younger sister Serena, who is missing Wimbledon while rehabbing her injured knee, might also come into play.
"She'll call me," Williams says. "Give me some words of advice. She always does."
Despite her critics, Venus Williams insists last year's All-England Club title was more validating than vengeful. Written off at various times in the recent past, Williams fired another warning shot at detractors on the eve of the tournament.
"I think a lot of people now have to be a lot more careful about saying whether or not the Williams sisters are going to be gone, because every time they do, they come back," she says. "I am expecting to play very, very well until I put up the racket."
Which won't be anytime soon, especially if she keeps mowing down the field on the lawns of London.
Posted 6/25/2006 5:59 PM ET
Updated 6/26/2006 7:29 AM ET