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tennisIlove09
Jun 1st, 2003, 08:00 AM
Skidding And Surviving, Venus Is Vulnerable At Roland Garros
By Richard Pagliaro, Tennis Week Writer
Special to WTAFANS.COM

Struggling to find her form after a long layoff from tournament tennis, Venus Williams has found a way to sparkle on the red clay of Roland Garros. The gaudy gold hoop earrings hanging from Williams' ears look larger than the pair of Olympic gold medals she won three years ago and have shined throughout the first two rounds while Williams has produced patches of largely lackluster play.

In the couture capital of the country, tennis' aspiring fashion designer has made more of a statement with her ability to accessorize than with her glamorous game. The woman who once punctuated points with powerful play is now a question mark reduced to making fashion statements rather than declarations of dominance on court.

It's as if the diamond that was once Venus at her best has been replaced by cubic zirconium and opponents aren't fooled by the imitation. Injury and inactivity have taken a toll on the 2002 French Open finalist. Williams, who strained her left abdominal muscle and was forced to retire in the third set of the J&S Cup final in Warsaw against Amelie Mauresmo on May 4th, withdrew from the German Open due to the injury and arrive in Paris without much match play on clay.

There's no doubt, the injury continues to trouble Venus. But the truth is even a healthy Venus would be vulnerable.

If you saw Venus' 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 victory over 110th-ranked Evie Dominikovic in the second round of Roland Garros, you witnessed some stretches of sloppy play from a former No. 1 who is still struggling to find her footing on the slow surface. Her second serve was attackable and she looked off balance and out of sorts at times, surrendering serve five times.

"I can't stay at this level and still continue to do as well as I'd like to at this tournament," Venus said. "I need to play more and more points, definitely not to rush my shots. But I feel I'm coming along."

She has a long way to go if she is to reach her fifth straight Slam final. While Williams should not be pressed in her third-round match with 26th-seeded Italian Silvia Farina Elia, she could face a much tougher test in the fourth round.

If rising Russian Vera Zvonareva can conquer Maria Sanchez Lorenzo to set up a fourth-round clash with Williams, don't count the 22nd-seeded Zvonareva out. She took a set off Serena at the same stage of the 2002 Roland Garros and is a fearless player who may lack the weapons to beat Venus, but is a confident player who would take the court believing she can win.

Self-belief seems to be lacking in Venus, whose indecision is apparent in her inability to consistently close out points. Part of the problem is lack of match play, but watching Venus this year you begin to wonder where tennis falls on her list of priorities?

Williams seems more interested in her interior design business than in crafting a Grand Slam championship. To be fair, the fact that both Williams sisters have taken time off throughout their tennis careers to pursue their college educations and outside business interests have made them more well-round people and have prevented the burn-out that has stricken some of their peers.

But Venus' total of four tournaments this year means she's on pace to play less than one event per month for the season. It's hardly realistic for Venus to play so little and expect so much from herself at the majors. Serena still stands alone as the supreme player in the sport, but the opposition has closed the competitive gap on Venus. While players continue to respect her, they are no longer intimidated by Venus' game and fully recognize her vulnerability at Roland Garros. Should Venus reach the quarterfinals, seventh-seeded Jennifer Capriati could be waiting for her and if that match comes off, look for Capriati to register her first career victory over her fellow Floridian.

Based on her current form, it's difficult to envision Venus concluding the French fortnight with another trip to the final. But don't discount her the rest of the season. If she's truly committed to regaining her prominent place as a Grand Slam champion again, Venus doesn't need a major renovation to her game, just several refinements.

1. She needs to start hitting out on her second serve and taking more risk to transform a shot that may be her biggest weakness into at least a threat that opponents must respect.

2. While her forehand held up fairly well against Dominikovic it remains a somewhat suspect shot under pressure. Her racquet preparation is fine, but Williams has a tendency to hit the forehand while falling off her back foot and she sometimes doesn't bend low enough on the shot resulting in her netting some routine forehands. Improving her footwork and using her legs on the low shots would eradicate many of the forehand problems she sometimes experiences now.

3. Venus needs more match play. The secret to success on the WTA Tour is there is no secret: it's hard work. Since her impressive run to the Australian Open final in January, Venus has too often appeared to put in inadequate preparation prior to tournaments. She has to look within herself and determine if tennis is her priority and if it is, she needs to treat it as her career and not a hobby.

Serena has often said she idolized her older sister so much she would insist on wearing the same clothes, adopting the same hairstyle and ordering the same food as Venus in restaurants. After four consecutive Grand Slam final defeats to Serena, it's Venus who has been left looking up to her young sister in the rankings and if she doesn't pick up her play soon there may be more than Kim Clijsters separating the sisters in the seedings.