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A partial eclipse of Venus

A partial eclipse of Venus
Court-circular gossip of the older sister in decline is premature but the signs are growing of a life after sport

By Ronald Atkin
March 30 2003
The Independent

Holder of all four Grand Slams, unbeaten this year, Serena Williams is, beyond dispute, the empress of tennis. Everyone trails in her slipstream nowadays. Even her big sister Venus. Since no one in the women's game has managed to dodge a wallop or two from the sisterly sledgehammer, eyebrows and hopes were raised in equal measure five days ago when Venus crashed to her worst defeat in 13 months, beaten 7-6 6-1 by the Arizona girl Meghann Shaughnessy at Key Biscayne.

Is Venus, at the age of 22, starting to creak under the series of injuries to knees and wrists? Is she, perhaps, disillusioned at having lost four Grand Slam finals in a row to Serena? Is she (whisper this one) discovering, like Martina Hingis, three months her junior, that there are other things in life besides creaming tennis balls?

Hingis, of course, was driven to quit by a combination of persistent injury and that sisterly sledgehammer, but until Venus was elbowed out of the No 1 ranking by Serena at Wimbledon last year, she ruled the roost spectacularly, having clocked up successive triumphs at the All England Club and the US Open.

Now Serena is regent of that roost. Having lost just five of her 61 singles matches in 2002, she plans to march unbeaten through this year. Already she has won 16 straight, lifting the Australian Open and Paris indoor titles and reaching the Key Biscayne final.

Somehow that sort of bounce and drive has never been Venus's thing. Fame and accompanying fortune were welcomed with the trademark dreamy smile, and tantrums were nowhere to be seen in the wake of last week's loss.

The reason, possibly, is that someone who has con-structed landmark success in tennis doesn't regard the sport as a career, or even a job. "Most people have to go to the office, or work in the fields, on a farm, in a factory," she said recently. "That's a job. I'm free, playing in the sun, and if there's a rain delay I get the day off. Where's the problem?"

Venus is also firm in rejecting suggestions of sibling jealousy. "We don't have that in our hearts. Whatever we share, we share the best we can. It's just not inside of us." And their mother, Oracene, insists that, away from the courts, her daughters never, ever, talk tennis.

The Florida-based Rick Macci, who coached the Williams girls in the early Nineties, considers they both remain "a cut above the rest", but he adds: "With Venus maybe a little bit of that burning desire isn't there on a regular basis, and if it isn't there you are vulnerable.

"If the Williams girls aren't there 100 per cent mentally they can be beaten. Remember, Serena almost lost in the first round of the Australian Open, she was a nervous wreck. In Venus's case that applies more, because she won't have that ultra-confidence Serena has right now. But it is too early to start putting out any danger sign. If there were five or six losses like the Shaughnessy one, then there is a danger sign.

"To stub your toe once in a while is going to happen, and to analyse the reason too deeply is premature, but if Venus has some more hiccups or bad losses it would be fair to ask what is going on. But it does show a little dent in the armour, because she has been beating Shaughnessy on a regular basis."

Bill Norris, the senior physio on the men's ATP tour, is necessarily a casual observer of the women's circuit, but feels physical damage may have started to take its toll. "Venus has had several knee injuries, and you always see her bandaged up here and there.

"From what I understand, one school of thought is that she still has a passion for the game but is expanding her horizon to the point where she sees other things, the sort of things she would like to do with her life. When you are injured or in a slump, these things seem a lot more attractive."

Norris does not consider that Venus's physical make-up, seemingly more in keeping with a high jumper than a tennis player, has been any sort of problem. "Betty Stove was a big girl, too, and had some success. We can no longer qualify a perfect tennis body. To get to this level they have ability, no matter what shape – pear, apple, whatever."

Venus readily acknowledges she does not enjoy training ("I don't like the gym, I don't think I ever will") but concedes how vital it is. "The injuries I've had happened because of my body structure. I'm long, tall and take a lot of abuse."

Venus considers Serena "pretty much an extrovert character", while she is the opposite – "hanging out at home, being with Bobby [her Yorkshire terrier], reading books".

Having completed a London Guildhall correspondence course in interior design, she now has her own business and is also planning to publish a book of her poetry. So undeniably there are things besides tennis in the life of Venus Ebone Starr Williams. Whether they will prove distracting, whether there will be more Shaughnessy-type defeats, remains to be seen.

But for the time being the sisterly purses are being eye-catchingly replenished by tennis. Venus and Serena have just signed a deal with Wilson which, at $1m (?640,000) apiece annually, makes them the highest-paid female endorsers of rackets in history. Which should help to guarantee Venus keeps her eye on the ball for a while longer.

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