By Tracy Austin
updated 3:24 p.m. ET, Wed., Jan. 23, 2008
MELBOURNE, Australia - Serbia 2, USA 0. That's the women's score line after Serbian Ana Ivanovic took out Venus Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals 7-6 (3), 6-4 a day after her sister Serena Williams crashed out to Jelena Jankovic. It's a stunning reversal of events for the USA's top two players, who own 14 majors (six for Venus, eight for Serena) between them.
After a week of play at the year's first major, there was talk about the possibility of an all-Williams final. But the sisters won't be going toe-to-toe Down Under and it's clear that the time when Venus and Serena dominated women's tennis is history. Today's younger players are too talented and have too many weapons for either Venus or Serena or both to rule over them as they once did.
A mostly disappointing performance
Both Venus and Ivanovic seemed nervy at the outset of their match. The first set was sloppy. There were six consecutive breaks of serve and Venus trailed 5-2 before she got her head in it. She managed to work her way back into the set, but she sighed and shrugged her shoulders as the errors mounted -- 21 unforced to just seven winners. She finally lost it in a tiebreak.
I thought the eighth-seeded American would at least push Ivanovic to three sets when she raced out to a 3-0 lead in the second set, but poor serving, some awkward volleys, and Ivanovic's more aggressive play eventually wore her down. The match ended when Venus steered a forehand wide -- her 35th unforced error.
Afterwards Venus offered that she wasn't moving quite as well against Ivanovic as she usually does. “I don't think I ran as many balls down or played offensively on the defensive shot as well as I have in the past,” she said, “and I think those things definitely make a difference in the match.” Her left thigh was heavily taped almost to her knee, but she would not specify what the problem was. Venus is right. Her defense was not up to par. She relies on her ability to track down an extra ball with her huge wingspan -- that's one of her main weapons.
What also made a difference against Ivanovic was Venus' inconsistent serving. She hit on just 59 percent of her first serves and won just 31 percent of her second-serve points. What's more, her second serve is too predictable -- it's always a slice to a right-hander's forehand, and Ivanovic ate it up. There are tournaments, like at Wimbledon in 2007, where the 6-foot-1 Venus serves out of her mind. But she needs to clean it up more and develop more of a kick serve to her opponent's backhand.
Not able to fire into top form
Venus still has some good miles left on her 27-year-old body. Likewise for Serena who is 26. The sisters have traditionally played fewer tournaments than their peers and they've had some big breaks away from the tour. So they could script at least a few more memorable majors before they ride off into the sunset. They could stir memories of when they were dominating. Remember the celebrated "Serena Slam," when younger sis held all four majors at once -- the 2002 French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and the '03 Australian. And it's hard to forget Venus winning four majors from 2000-01.
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We've seen both Venus and Serena click into another level at big tournaments time and again. Serena won her third Australian Open title here last year ranked No. 81 and Venus captured Wimbledon in 2007 as the lowest ranked (No. 31) and lowest seed (No. 23) in history after nearly losing twice in the first three rounds. Then she leaped 10 spots in beating Maria Sharapova in the fourth round in London.
We almost expect either or both to gear up to the next level at a major. But this fortnight neither could manage that. While Serena simply stalled out against Jankovic, Venus seemed stuck in third gear. Her scores weren't decisive and she wasn't completely sharp. For instance, she had a whopping 44 errors in her second-round win over Camille Pin of France. Maybe we shouldn't expect the play of each sister to rise with the magnitude of the event. It's tough to pull a rabbit out of a hat consistently. Venus' play has been solid, but it has not been at a championship level. Ivanovic exposed that.
Stars could still align for Venus and Serena
Improvement is the key for Venus. She appears motivated to keep playing and looking for ways to push her game ahead. She's eager, and she played a full schedule last year after coming back in February, though she missed the year-end championships in Madrid due to dizziness. “I definitely think I'm still improving,” said Venus. “That's my goal: to be better every tournament. If I don't have that goal one day, then that's a problem.” That's the mindset she needs because frankly her chances to win here are dwindling. She's made the final at this major only once -- in 2003 losing to Serena.
Tennis has some sparking examples of players with longevity and success. Andre Agassi played near the top until 36 and Martina Navratilova competed in doubles at age 50! At about 30, though, reflexes slow and many players start to think about wrapping up their careers and starting families. Next year when Venus returns here she'll be 28. Ivanovic will just be that much better, along with rising players like Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka, just to name two. And there's probably some kid out there we've never heard of ready to make a splash on tour.
Despite the sour taste from how things ended here, Venus should have an excellent year. Serena is capable of the same. While that doesn't mean they'll show their dominance of old, they still can show plenty of excellence in their play. I would hope that both sisters would strive towards winning a few more Grand Slam events before the end of their careers. After all it's the major titles that players are remembered for, not the tournament wins in San Diego or Dubai or Zurich. When former players are introduced to crowds for the rest of their lives, the only thing anybody cares about is how many Wimbledons, U.S. Opens, French Opens and Australian Opens they won.