Venus looking grand for Wimbledon title
U.S. star's form and power will likely prove too much for underdog Bartoli
After a slow start at Wimbledon, Venus Williams has her game in top form, making her the clear favorite in the women's singles title match against little-known Marion Bartoli of France, writes Tracy Austin of MSNBC.com.
By Tracy Austin
Updated: 10 minutes ago
LONDON - Good fortune would seem to be on the side of Venus Williams at Wimbledon this year.
The best evidence of such is that Venus will be taking on No. 18 Marion Bartoli of France and not top-seeded Justine Henin in the women's singles final as the American seeks to win her fourth Wimbledon title, and her second in the last three years.
Any realistic look at the final makes Venus the pick to win, and if she does prevail, she will have captured the sixth Grand Slam title of her career.
An upset for the ages
The entire tennis world is in shock after Bartoli came from a set down to upset Henin in the semifinals. I doubt anyone was anticipating the stunning upset. Bartoli took out the three-time reigning French Open champion, 1-6, 7-5, 6-1. It definitely was the biggest upset in the later rounds of Wimbledon in the Open Era.
I’m sure that before they took the court Henin felt the match against Bartoli was 99.9 percent in her pocket, and I’m sure she’s as surprised as the rest of the world that she won’t be playing in the Wimbledon final. Henin has confronted and overcome some big challenges in her brilliant career, but this was one she never saw coming.
On paper things couldn’t have looked more perfect for Henin. Her preparation was top notch in her attempt to win Wimbledon, the one major that has eluded her. She has been to the final at the London fortnight twice, including last year. The Belgian won the French Open earlier this year without losing a set. She won the Eastbourne Wimbledon warm-up tournament in a great final by beating out Wimbledon defending champion Amelie Mauresmo in a third-set tiebreaker.
Until Henin played seventh-seeded Serena Williams in the quarterfinals (a match she won in three sets), she had easy passage through the Wimbledon draw. Henin was on the top of her game. But who knew that Bartoli -- after calming her nerves after a 22-minute, first-set loss to Henin -- would play out-of-her-mind tennis. Her performance was truly shockingly good, especially in the third set, when she bolted out to a 5-0 lead.
Bartoli's previous best showing at a major was the fourth round at last month's French Open. She pronounced herself of championship caliber when she became relaxed, and began striking the ball with more confidence. The many methods she used to knock out Henin included double-fisted shots into the corners, the use of clever angles in her shotmaking, and deploying delicate drop shots that Henin could not handle.
High risk, high reward tennis
At the start of the second set in the Henin-Bartoli match I couldn’t see the Frenchwoman winning the semifinal because she couldn’t keep up with the pace of the encounter, and her game hadn't shown that extra gear to go to the level that would be required to beat the Belgian. She had chosen a path of very high risk tennis, but hadn't convinced me she could sustain that style for the entire match. But that is exactly what she did.
It’s clear that her father, Dr. Walter Bartoli, modeled her game after Monica Seles. She plays two-handed off of both sides, she leans into her shots, and hits very flat. She stands very close to the baseline -- in fact, she stands well within the baseline to take the return-of-serve which robs an opponent of time. Venus must expect all of these things and be ready for them.
Bartoli, who earlier in the fortnight also did away with third-seeded Jelena Jankovic, snuck up on Henin, and it didn't hurt that she likely played the best tennis of her career against the Belgian. At the majors, there aren't a myriad of traps for the higher-seeded players, but Bartoli was a trap for Henin -- one the Belgian surprisingly fell into and then couldn't climb out of. What happened to Henin against Bartoli should be a warning to Venus. She must be ready for the tactics the Frenchwoman used to get to the final. If she isn't, she'll risk joining Henin at the front of the group of players most disappointed as they depart the All-England Club.
The big question is can Bartoli keep up the kind of play she displayed vs. Henin against Venus. Some hold deep reservations that she can. That's not a knock on her talent or her potential. But the analogy would be how many times does a pitcher follow a perfect game or a no-hitter by repeating the feat. That's sort of what's facing Bartoli when meeting Venus. Can she play so incredibly well for a second straight day?
Venus's form gives her the edge
Venus is going to be in the driver’s seat in the final. It’s pretty impressive how she was playing below average in the first few rounds and then just turned it around in one match. She struggled to beat Alla Kudryavtseva, not one of the familiar Russian names on the women’s tour, in the first round. In the third round she faced a very tenacious Akiko Morigami, who was leading in the third set before Venus broke back and won the match. But in the next round things would change in a hurry.
Venus went against Maria Sharapova in the fourth-round and her game snapped into place making her look near invincible in a 6-1, 6-3 victory. A quarterfinal win over fifth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova was also extremely impressive as was a semifinal straight-set triumph over No. 6 seed Ana Ivanovic. To be able to turn her game around in just one match like Venus did against Sharapova just shows how much her belief system breaks many of the commonly held beliefs about succeeding in the sport.
Venus and her younger sister Serena have shown over the years that's it's near impossible to figure what we'll see from them on a tournament-to-tournament basis or even a match-to match basis. Look at earlier this year when Serena showed up at the Australian Open after a 2006 season in which she played a very limited amount of matches due to injury. All she did Down Under was play herself back into shape and rediscover the form and fight that enabled her to capture the season's first major.
And go back to Wimbledon in 2005. Venus arrived in London following a disappointing French Open, and she showed no signs she was going to stick around on grass for very long. That is until she started playing on the lawns. Once Venus got going there was no stopping her, and she went on to win her third Wimbledon title. A stunner, indeed, but more proof that it's unwise to every count out the Williams sisters.
Venus to unleash her power
There’s no denying that Venus has the bigger first serve than Bartoli since at 6-foot-1 she’s a pretty towering figure on the court. But I was rather impressed with Bartoli’s statistics in her match against Henin -- she concluded the three-setter by successfully getting in 86 percent of her first serves. That’s incredible and a really unheard of level of success. And while the 5-foot-6 Bartoli is not the tallest player on the tour, she was definitely not just powder-puffing those serves in landing them in just the right spots against Henin. But where Bartoli can take advantage of Venus is on the second serve because that’s a vulnerable shot for the American.
On the service return it will be interesting to see how Bartoli handles Venus’ steady 115-mph serves from well within the baseline. If she can get a handle on those serves, she can cut the angle out because she hits the ball back so flat, which could give Venus some problems. But to keep that up for a whole match is going to be difficult for the Frenchwoman. It's much easier said than done.
A caution would be that we did not see the normal Bartoli out there against Henin. The outcome of the final is going to greatly depend on which Bartoli shows against Venus. Will it be the Bartoli who played above and beyond expectations to stun the No. 1 player in the world or will it be the Bartoli who has lost four first-round and six second-round matches since the beginning of the year.
It will be curious to see what magic Bartoli can pull out of her hat against Venus. It's tough not to expect Venus at No. 23 to become the lowest ranked player to win Wimbledon since the rankings began. Interestingly, if she won Venus would break her own record in that regard as she was the lowest ranked player at No. 14 when she won Wimbledon in 2005.
© 2007 MSNBC Interactive