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CanIGetAWhat
Jun 24th, 2006, 12:13 AM
Venus seeks Wimbledon repeat

American's title defense will be waged against a field with no favorite

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Venus Williams will be trying to win her fourth Wimbledon ladies' singles title, and her comfort level on grass will work to her advantage, writes Tracy Austin of MSNBC.com.

COMMENTARY
By Tracy Austin
NBC Sports

Updated: 1 minute ago

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Tracy Austin

Like at the French Open, at Wimbledon there isn't a clear-cut favorite to win the ladies' singles title, and big names dot the list of those left out of this major by physical woes.

The top players missing a trip to the All-England Club are Serena Williams (left knee injury); Lindsay Davenport (back injury); Mary Pierce (right foot injury); Nadia Petrova (groin injury); and Jennifer Capriati (two surgeries on both her right shoulder and right wrist).

If I had to place a bet on who would win, I'd go with Justine Henin-Hardenne, this year's French Open winner, but I also give Venus Williams, a three-time Wimbledon champion (2000, 2001, and 2005), a chance at defending her title despite limited play this season.

Venus Williams
Venus is still a work-in-progress in 2006 as injuries limited her to just 14 matches before Wimbledon. She posted a 10-4 record, and made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open before losing to Nicole Vaidisova.

At the time of the Wimbledon seedings, Venus was ranked No. 12, but taking into account her success on grass, she was seeded higher (No. 7) than her ranking. Since 2000, Venus has a 34-3 record at the All-England Club.

Unlike other players, Venus actually feels comfortable on the grass. And her confidence on the surface propels her to win matches she might otherwise lose. http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/Components/Art/SPORTS/060622/AP_WIMBLEDON.gif

Just look at last year's final when after getting down 5-2 to Davenport in the first set, Venus battled her way back to win the longest women's title match in Wimbledon history.

And just as impressively she became the first woman in Wimbledon's 70-year history to win the title after being down championship point.

While there may be some reasons to think Venus can't pull off the improbable again, I think she's proven she can come through when it counts the most.

Venus' quarter of the draw presents her with a potential fourth-round match against ninth-seeded Anastasia Myskina, and a quarterfinal meeting with top-ranked Amelie Mauresmo. In the semifinals, she might meet up with Maria Sharapova.

Justine Henin-Hardenne
Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam title that has eluded the 24-year-old from Belgium. She has made the final once -- in 2001 when she lost to Venus Williams.

The third-seeded Henin-Hardenne has had a solid season. She's also been able to get some play in on grass as a tuneup to Wimbledon, something she did not do last year, and it hurt her as she was a first-round upset victim, beaten by Eleni Daniilidou of Greece in straight sets.

Henin-Hardenn has to be very hungry to win a title at the All-England Club. There is no indication she does not have the game to win on grass, even more so now that her serve has a bit more punch behind it.

Henin-Hardenne has a favorable draw with the two potential biggest hurdles for her to clear to make the final being Martina Hingis in the quarterfinals, and her Belgian compatriot Kim Clijsters in the semifinals.

Amelie Mauresmo
Based on her No. 1 ranking, Mauresmo is the top seed at Wimbledon for the first time in her career. I don't believe she'll feel any added pressure because of that, and she certainly won't feel near as much heat from the London spotlight as she does from the one in Paris at the French Open.

I'm sure she would have liked to get in more matches on grass prior to Wimbledon, but she lost in the opening round last week of the Eastbourne grasscourt tournament to fellow Frenchwoman Nathalie Dechy.

Mauresmo has a game that is well suited to grass, and has been a semifinalist at Wimbledon the last three years. That has to help her feel confident she can win this major.

Also boosting her confidence is the Australian Open title she won in January.

To make the final, she might have to get by Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, and Maria Sharapova in the semifinals.

Maria Sharapova
The 2004 Wimbledon champion has missed time this season due to a right foot injury, but she catches a break because I feel that among the top contenders she has the easiest quarter of the draw.

If all plays to form the fourth-seeded Sharapova would take on a fellow Russian, seventh-seeded Elena Dementieva, in the quarterfinals. The two have played five times with Sharapova winning four of those matches.

Before a potential sixth meeting with Dementieva, Sharapova won't face a seed until at least the fourth round where she could go against either 20th-seeded Shahar Peer of Israel or 32nd-seeded Mara Santangelo of Italy. She is a combined 3-0 in her career against these two players.

What I wonder about with Sharapova is whether the match play she missed due to injury brings her to Wimbledon in less than championship form.

Martina Hingis
Hingis, who has shot up the rankings since beginning her comeback in January after three years out of the sport, appears to me more fit now than at any point in her career.

She has put a little more pop on her serve, she can volley, and she can hit drop shots. All of these elements of her game will help her on the grass.

Hingis, who won Wimbledon in 1997 as a 16-year-old, has been very impressive in her comeback, but I consider her a darkhorse to win Wimbledon this year.

Kim Clijsters
The best Wimbledon result for the second seed came in 2003 when she made the semifinals, losing to Venus Williams in three sets. Last year Clijsters got to the fourth round and lost in straight sets to Davenport. But last year she also won her firs major, the U.S. Open.

Clijsters quest for a title will be driven by her all-court game, and her ability to move through a quarter of the draw where the top threat to her making the semifinals should be fifth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is 1-5 in her career against the Belgian.

The big question for me with Clijsters is how hungry she is to win another major since she has talked extensively about perhaps retiring in a year and half due to the demands the sport is placing on her body.

A couple of others to watch
Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won the U.S. Open in 2004 and earlier this month made it to the French Open final before falling to Henin-Hardenne, has an outside chance to win her second major.

She has the game to reign at Wimbledon, and hits her serve as hard as any player on the WTA Tour.

In two of the three years she has played Wimbledon, the 20-year-old has reached the quarterfinals, and so it wouldn't surprise me if she went deep into the second week this fortnight.

The ranking of American Jamea Jackson skyrocketed from No. 81 to No. 54 after the 5-foot-4 Floridian shocked Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals of a Wimbledon grasscourt tuneup last week in Birmingham, England.

Looking at the draw, Jackson would possibly have to face only one-seeded player -- No. 15 Daniela Hantuchova -- over the first three rounds so it may not be asking too much for her to make a serious run at a potential fourth-round clash with Henin-Hardenne.

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