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More than tennis in Venus' world
By Mark Kreidler
Special to

Maybe it isn't the end for Venus Williams. It almost certainly isn't.

On the surface of things, all that just happened is that Williams didn't train much for the French Open because of a stomach-muscle injury, played into the fourth round and then suffered her earliest exit from a Grand Slam event since 1999.

Too many distractions may prove to be Venus Williams' ultimate demise on the tennis court.
She's a wonderful, graceful athlete, Venus. She'll get in some practice time now, and then she'll go to Wimbledon, where the grass courts suit her so well. Perhaps she'll have a wonderful fortnight; it is by no means beyond her.

So it isn't the end. No question about that.

But you can see it from here.

Not of Williams' career, of course, but of the conversation that put her among the sport's eternal elite. You are looking at the Venus Williams of today, not the Williams of three years ago, the one who played with such an imperial command. The Venus of today is diverse in her interests, fractured in her concentration, most likely distracted by having been surpassed by her sibling in a sport she once ruled.

The Venus of today counts tennis as one of the things she generally enjoys, not the universe about which she is obssessed with conquering. Watch this great woman play, and you can almost see her glancing off into the distance, wondering if there isn't some place else she'd rather be.

It ain't fatal. But it sure is real.

The question of where Venus Williams goes from here might be the most interesting one in women's tennis right now, and that's saying something. The question arrives at a time in which her sister, Serena Williams, continues on her quest to obliterate the women's game by essentially winning every tournament she feels like winning. It arrives at a time in which Monica Seles is contemplating the end of the road, and Martina Hingis already has been forced there by injury, and the world is beginning to look in the direction of the emerging wave of talent to see who's coming up to provide the next challenge.

It's all interesting. But for sheer, fascinating bewilderment, there's nothing that can touch the demise of Venus Williams as the next great thing to happen to the sport.

You're not looking at a case of burnout, after all. Even during her ascendance, even during that amazing run in 2000 that took in two Slam titles, two Olympic gold medals and a 35-match win streak -- even during all of that, Williams always was a diverse enough person that burnout seemed the unlikeliest of turns.

No, Williams' slight fade from pre-eminence -- and that's all it takes at this level of professional sports, a slight fade -- has been brought on essentially by her own perceptible decline in interest.

Put it this way: I don't know if Venus at full tilt could still beat Serena at full tilt, but it's a match I would love to see played. Alas, I'm almost sure I never will.

Even at her peak, Venus openly discussed how many things other than tennis occupied her thoughts. She spoke of design, of art, of wanting to achieve any number of other things in her adult life. Tennis, at some point, came to be viewed by Williams as the vehicle that carried her to this point, not necessarily the only vessel she'd ever board.

In matches against her sister, moreover, Venus always appeared ambivalent about winning. Serena seems to feel none of that constraint. Maybe it's the difference between a big sister and a little sister. Maybe it's a deeper cut of the personality than that.

It isn't as though Venus Williams has forgotten how to play blindingly good tennis -- prior to the French, she had met her sister in four straight Grand Slam finals. Surely no one would call that failure. But if the line between good and great is a thin one, then the line between great and elite is an onion skin. It can be as simple as attitude, as basic as the willingness to work and practice.

It can be about health, certainly, or guts, or nerves, or technique. You can argue that, on some plain level, it can be about the quality of competition. If Serena didn't exist, then perhaps Venus could play distracted and still win everything in sight.

But Serena does exist; she occupies the space formerly inhabited by her sister. That was the Venus of three years ago -- a player who would never let 75 unforced errors stop her from winning, as the Venus of today did in losing to Vera Zvonareva in Paris.

The Venus of old, the Williams who ran through the 2000 calendar year like an athlete bound for immortality, didn't lose herself along the way to 2003 nearly so much as she appeared to lose her focus. It's sports. It happens. You think back, in fact, and the player just about told us as much. Guess it's time to believe her.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to

25,073 Posts
VERY interesting article. Thanks for posting it.
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