Goddess seeks mountaintop
January 11, 2009
IF WOMEN'S tennis pioneer Billie Jean King were to cast her eyes around a room housing the leadership candidates for the current generation, where would her gaze stop? Not on the current No. 1, Jelena Jankovic, or the other three players to hold the prized ranking after Justine Henin's stunning abdication. Her sights would be on Venus Williams.
"Venus is the kind of person when you're speaking with her you're wondering, 'What is she taking in or what is she not taking in?', but she really goes away and she processes over a long period of time," King told The Sunday Age
"I was very surprised that Venus stepped up on equal prizemoney, and that thrilled me. So I would say Venus has been a huge surprise to me and a wonderful surprise."
Relay those words to the elder Williams sister and she responds demurely. "I respect Billie's opinion, she's done great things for the game, and to hear her say something like that is flattering," said the world No. 6, who ended yet another Wimbledon-winning year with victory in the rich year-end Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha.
Williams was thus the only player to claim more than one of the five biggest prizes on the women's tour in 2008, and yet having not won a non-grasscourt major since 2001 only by King's off-court measurement is the 28-year-old at the top of the game.
She also arrives in Melbourne this week from the annual Hong Kong exhibition trying to improve a relatively modest Australian Open record, for not since she was runner-up to her sister Serena in 2003 has the seven-time grand slam champion passed the quarter-finals.
Asked if there was any explanation for her comparative lack of Melbourne Park success, Williams said: "I've had obviously my best results at Wimbledon, but I've also had good results in Australia, and a lot of players would be happy with those results.
"Of course, for me, I'm not as happy, because I do want to win the title, and I've been close a few times.
"But, you know, I don't think that hard; I just go play. All the thinking needs to be done before you play, and when you play you don't need to think so I'm just going to have fun."
And the new Plexicushion surface? How well does it suit her thundering game? "I'm so unpicky," Venus shrugs, smiling. "I just play. I don't see a difference between racquets, stringers, courts, I'm really the most unpicky player you'll ever meet. Almost."
Yet Williams' two outstanding slams have been the US Open (two championships) and Wimbledon (five), and it is almost as if SW19 has become such a focus that she does not really get cracking before the middle of the year. Another factor may be that Venus has often started the season with an injury, or having just resumed from one, but this time carries over a nine-match winning streak from a glorious end to 2008 that included the Zurich and Doha titles.
"Sometimes I have good results in the first half of the year, and then sometimes I'm not as healthy, but then somehow I pull it together by the other half of the year," muses the triple Olympic gold medallist. "And then a lot of times in the fall (autumn) I'm not as healthy, so it's sometimes a cycle, but I'm working through it."
There may yet be other changes. This week, Williams told reporters in Hong Kong that she feels "in a great position to move forward to No. 1", despite having long concentrated more on the major events than the computer. "I had a really good off-season. I think this one was the longest one ever. I did four weeks with no tennis, that was pretty amazing. I enjoyed it too much. Breaks are a luxury so it was a wonderful luxury. I'm feeling good."
For King, the Williams sisters remain one of the great stories in any sport, but prefers to discuss them as the individuals Venus and Serena.
In an Australian Open context, Serena's record is superior, with three titles in the past six years. But, as a collective, King nevertheless describes the charismatic Americans as "a tremendous force; not only in women's tennis, they've truly transcended our sport".
"They're a great human story besides the tennis part, and I think that's what makes them exciting," King said. "They also are not cut from the same mould that we're used to seeing all the time, in that they grew up being told to do many different things in their lives, which exasperates me no end sometimes.
"I wish Oracene and Richard had been a little more, 'Go on and concentrate on your tennis, there'll be other careers after tennis'.
"I think sometimes it hurts their focus, and you really do have to focus to be the best you can be, I think, at this stage of the sport."