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Jun 2nd, 2003, 03:26 AM
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Venus Williams (right) needs to alter her game in several ways in an attempt to get back the form that won her four majors in her career, says Bud Collins of NBCSports.com.

Venus needs to make changes
Williams, Capriati upset in fourth round of French Open

COMMENTARY

PARIS, June 1 — It was a heady Sunday for Russia at the French Open as two of its young players rose to prominence by pulling off upsets of third-seeded Venus Williams and seventh-seeded Jennifer Capriati, leaving the two highly-touted Americans looking

A SHOCKING EXIT
Venus Williams is fully enveloped in her days of malaise and it showed in her 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 loss to Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, who is the No. 22 seed.

Venus came into this tournament at less than 100 percent physically, but that didn’t excuse her horrific play against the 18-year-old Russian.

And Venus did not blame her recent abdominal problems for her loss.

Her opponent faced her down, using hard, consistent groundstrokes and a willingness to chase balls to the limits.

Zvonareva never quivered, but Venus quaked, careening 75 unforced errors, never taking advantage of big opportunities and not managing to get her forehand under control.

Venus was wandering around the court without much of a strategy.

For a four-time Grand Slam champion who once lit up the world with her beaming smile when she ruled in London and New York, it was a very sad day.

VENUS HAS BECOME VULNERABLE
Since Venus lost her fourth straight Grand Slam final to her little sister, Serena, in Australia back in January, she has been a phantom on tour, winning only one title.

Her three-set loss to her sister Down Under has clearly devastated her.

In the last game of that match, she looked so unsure of herself that it appeared her right arm might fall off because it was shaking so mightily when she went up to serve.

The woman who could once scorch a heater at crunch time, the woman who dared her foes to hit wide to her backhand so she could launch a blistering reply down the line had gone up in smoke in Australia and was merely a ball of nerves.

That Venus Williams — the one who had stood above all others in the women’s game,even her little sister — disappeared in the Melbourne humidity and she really hasn’t been seen since.

I think Venus is a little depressed because she isn’t sure whether she can ever leapfrog Serena.

As a result, her level of play has dropped to a point where she is very vulnerable to a number of players, including younger competitors like Zvonavera.

Venus needs a large dose of confidence and the only way she’s going to get it is to get hungry again.

Venus has to show some emotion and tell herself, Serena, and the world that she still cares about competing and winning.

Venus has a beautiful smile that the world loves to see, but on court, she needs to flash her fangs a little more.

FIXING WHAT’S WRONG
Venus needs to commit to making some decent-sized changes in her game.

Her failure over the past year and a half to charge the net when given the opportunity is really holding her back.

She needs to go for her second serve more and take more risks with her first serve.

Venus told me that coming in to the net isn’t a natural instinct for her, but a woman of her height and with her wingspan could further develop her tennis mind and gradually get used to moving forward.

She completely retooled her forehand three years ago and so she can certainly learn to propel her long legs loping ahead.

CAPRIATI’S CONCERNS
Like Venus, Jennifer Capriati is also stuck in a depressive phase of her career as she hasn’t improved in the past year and is now fair game for 20-year-old Russians like big Nadia Petrova, who is unseeded, but who rushed past Capriati, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

In many ways, Capriati is in a similar position to Venus.

She’s a wonderful mover and a terrific fighter, but the reason why she lost to the talented Petrova is because the Russian was willing to change strategies, while Capriati wasn’t. Petrova out-served Capriati and also out-thought her. That shouldn’t happen to a Grand Slam champion.

Capriati thought she would be able to tire out Petrova with long rallies, but the Russian managed to shorten these points by coming in and winning 17 of 25 points at the net.

Contrast that to Capriati, who came in only twice and won just one point at the net.

Capriati hasn’t won a title since the 2002 Australian Open and although she is in the mix at every major, it seems like she winds up at the bottom of the blender when crunch time comes around.

SERENA VS. MAURESMO
With an anticipated Venus-Capriati quarterfinal not having materialized, the only match that stands out in the women’s round of eight will be Tuesday’s meeting between top-seeded Serena Williams and the No. 5 seed Amelie Mauresmo of France.

Serena looked a little shaky in the fourth round against Ai Sugiyama, but managed to pull through on the big points.

She essentially called out her next opponent, Mauresmo, when she said that the only reason she has lost a match this year is because she’s played badly.

That was a reference to a meeting between these two a couple of weeks ago, a match where I saw Mauresmo play brilliantly to topple Serena in the Italian Open semifinals, which like the French competition are played on clay.

Serena didn’t play great, but Mauresmo stood strong from the back and served and volleyed well.

But Serena won’t give her opponents credit for beating her straight up, which is part of her demeanor.

She believes that she’s the best and if she plays at anywhere close to her highest level, she’ll come through.

That’s one of the reasons why she’s won the last four Grand Slams, because deep down inside, she believes that when push comes to shove in a big match, her strokes will knock her foe over.

MAURESMO A PARIS FAVORITE
Mauresmo has played much better in Paris this year than at any other time in her career and at least in the first week, appears to have conquered the Parisian choking demons that saw her gag on the red clay to Jan Kandarr in 2001 and Paola Suarez last year.

The French crowd will be charged up in an attempt to carry her to victory and although I do believe this match will be extremely close, I like Serena’s composure better in big matches than Mauresmo’s.

When Serena was asked whether she preferred to play in front of a largely supportive crowd or one that wants to see her fail, she said she gets more excited when the boos and hisses are raining down on her.

“It’s definitely more fun to extinguish them,” she said with a gleam in her eye.

MY PICK: Serena in three sets.

AGASSI COULD SOON BE GONE
Second-seeded Andre Agassi is the only American male remaining in the draw and in the quarterfinals he’ll face a stiff challenge from either Argentine Guillermo Coria, or Coria’s compatriot, Mariano Zabaleta.

Coria and Zabaleta meet in a fourth-round match on Monday and I like Agassi to better the survivor and then face 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya in the semifinals.

I picked Moya to win this tournament and believe that he’ll get the better of Agassi, denying the American a second French Open title.

On the other side of the draw, I still like high-flying Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero’s chances of gaining the final over a tough-as-nails draw that still includes three-time French Open titlelist Gustavo Kuerten.