May 5, 2004
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Venus Finds Her Feet on Clay
by John Berkok
What was beginning to seem like past glory has welcomingly resurfaced as former world No.1 Venus Williams
has dominated the first leg of the WTA Tour clay court season, winning 11 straight matches and picking up two titles along the way.
Not scheduled to play at Amelia Island, Venus stormed through the draw the next week in Charleston, coming back from a one set deficit in the final to defeat Spanish veteran Conchita Martinez 26 62 61 and capture the Family Circle Cup title on debut. The next week, she helped the USA through to the quarterfinals of the Fed Cup with two singles
wins against Slovenia.
Venus then headed to Warsaw, Poland, dropping a set in her opening round match with Australian Open semifinalist Fabiola Zuluaga, but then cruising to the title without the loss of another set, avenging her worst loss of the year in the final 61 64 against Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, to capture her first J&S Cup. Venus won only five games
against the Russian in a quarterfinal loss in Dubai earlier this year.
It was last year in Warsaw where Venus suffered an abdominal strain which would hamper her season and lead to her lengthy lay-off after Wimbledon. However, according to Williams, the injury is no longer a factor.
"I'm fine now. I just have to make sure that I don't get tight," she said, "I've had really no issues with the abdominals this year."
Needless to say, the winning
streak and the ease at which she has dispatched her experienced and talented opponents certainly places her among the favourites for the French Open title, alongside Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, as well as a resurgent sister Serena.
However, such favoritism would have seemed unlikely just weeks ago.
This resurgence to form is not a new situation for Williams. After a rapid rise to the upper echelon of women's tennis, she struggled with injury, culminating in an extended six-month lay-off from wrist tendonitis at the beginning of the 2000 season.
Coming back from the long lay-off, it appeared as though Venus was not the same player she used was previous to the lay-off. Early losses in her first few tournaments back ended up meaning nothing, as the match play would help a rested Venus find her form again and storm to her first major at Wimbledon just weeks later.
Venus not only won the US Open later in 2000, but also defended the two major titles the next year, also gaining the No.1 ranking in that run. With the exception of injuries and thus a limited playing schedule, she was clearly the player to beat heading into 2002.
"When you're on a professional tour, you don't aspire to be No.3 or No.2. Normally you do your best to become the best," she said at the time. "At this point, I am the best player in the world."
The momentum shifted, however, as younger sister Serena turned the rivalry upside down and dominated the 2002 and the beginning of the 2003 seasons, shutting sister Venus out in five major finals. Perhaps the most damaging loss of 2003 for Venus was not in a major, it was in Warsaw, where the abdominal strain forced her to retire against Amelie Mauresmo in the final.
After losing in the Wimbledon final to Serena, the severity of the injury meant that Venus would not see competition for the rest of the season.
Venus returned to the circuit at the outset of the 2004 season, but appeared rusty and was unable to make it past the quarterfinals in her first four events, the last of which, the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami
, was the comeback tournament for sister Serena from her own knee injury. Serena ended up winning the title, defeating Elena Dementieva in the final. Dementieva had defeated Venus en route to her finals appearance.
"I did feel a little bit inconsistent, that's definitely what I'm going to work on," said Venus, "... but sometimes it happens if you don't always play a lot of matches."
At the time, it appeared that Venus was not the same player as she used to be, and some doubted if she could ever regain the No.1 form. Those doubters have now been silenced.
Perhaps this could be an indication that we are seeing Venus Williams unleash her maximum potential once more.
"The more matches that I play, the easier it becomes for me," said Williams after her Charleston and Federation Cup success, "I learn from each match... I wouldn't say it started in Charleston."
"When she won in Charleston, I thought she played as well as she ever had," said Martina Navratilova, who accompanied Williams on the Fed Cup team against Slovenia
. "I think she can hit that stride again, if she stays healthy. That's always been the question for her. I think she's got the confidence back."
With a healthy
Venus Williams gaining confidence every match and another major title possibly around the corner, perhaps we are witnessing history repeat itself.