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Venus tries to work back into contention

Matthew Cronin / Special to

PARIS - Venus Williams will turn 27 in between the French Open and Wimbledon. However, as lean and sculpted as her body looks, it's taken a lot of abuse over the course of her career.

"I think the most important thing is that I'm on tour, and as long as I'm on tour, I feel like really good things can happen to me," said Venus, who defeated Alize Cornet of France 6-4, 6-3 to move into the second round on Monday at Roland Garros.

She's won five Grand Slams, but she's been little more than a part-time player since she ripped an abdominal muscle during the 2003 Wimbledon semifinals. Her list of ailments reads like a league-wide NFL injury report after the 17th week of the season.

Venus has been paying for her decision to defend her family honor for nearly four years now. Instead of withdrawing from the Wimbledon final against her sister Serena with the abdominal injury, she marched on like a soldier, lost the match in three sets and consequently ruined the rest of her year.

"I had to do it, definitely, because I would have never wanted to look back and say, 'Maybe I could have,'" she once said. "I came quite close actually. And I'm okay with the decision."

It was a heroic choice, but also a questionable one. For Venus, part of it was to prove she and Serena never fix their matches. Still, she's paid for that choice, winning just five titles since the injury, compared to 29 before.

While fans may forget the sacrifice Venus made, she stepped up for the sport on that final Saturday at Wimbledon. In recent years, the public has only been privy to a long list of stints on the disabled list.

After the 2003 season, Venus put her hard hat on in 2004. She battled through ankle and wrist injuries, but was only able to win two titles.

Her commitment to the grind paid off in 2005. She diligently played and practiced until rediscovering her once ethereal form at Wimbledon, where she won her third crown by besting then-No.1 Lindsay Davenport in an epic three-set final.

But her stomach muscles would betray her once again. She also re-injured her knee and only played in three tournaments the rest of the year.

You could call 2006 a wasted year, as Williams sustained an elbow injury and then a left wrist injury, which limited her to one tournament after Wimbledon, where she withdrew because her wrist was still too sore.

She returned in February of this year and won a Tier III tournament in Memphis over Shahar Peer. Since then, it's been one roadblock after another.

On three occasions, she's lost three-setters to elite players Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova and took two questionable defeats to French youngsters Tatiana Golovin and Aravane Rezai.

"It bothered me for sure," she said. "I'm a winner, and I'm used to winning most matches. So definitely losing any of those matches is like a foreign feeling. But I definitely count my blessings. I definitely expect just as much from myself. I still have the same big game and there's nothing less. It's just I haven't been as fortunate to be on tours as much as many people. So I'm very excited to be here to do my job and have the opportunity to do it well."

Maybe Venus will stay healthy for the rest of the summer, maybe not. But if she is near 100 percent, she'll have more than a few opportunities to make a major impact at the majors again.

With good health, she's still a quality player. She's no slouch on clay either, having reached the French Open final in 2002 and having visited the second week on several occasions.

But the fear factor that once struck other players when they saw her game face is gone — and rightly so. Although Venus is a former No. 1, winning just three titles in the past two years isn't going to make anyone shake. That kind of intimidation factor is reserved for Justine Henin, Serena and Sharapova, all who have put up highly impressive performances during the past year.

"She's not as dominant as she once was," said young American Ashley Harkleroad, whom she'll face in the next round.

Venus hasn't been a leading contender since 2005. She's certainly capable of joining the elite if she can establish a comfortable rhythm. Her groundstrokes are still ferocious when she's following through on her forehand. She's still one of the best defensive players on the planet due to her long, loping strides. When she's tossing them in, she can still dominate with her first serve. But despite what she says, Venus no longer has that inner self-belief at crunch time she once had — and that will only return with more matches and more victories.

At this point, she's hoping her game clicks in, but is prepared to turn the dial herself.

"I'm not exactly focusing on the clicks because I feel like I know what I need to execute on the courts here," she said. "I just need to go out there and do what I need to do, whether it's clicking or not, because I've played lots of matches where I didn't feel like I was at my best, but I still have to play. It's not about if I'm feeling absolutely on Cloud 9."

If Venus wakes up on the right side of the court, she should have her way with Ashely Harkleroad, her second-round opponent, fear factor or not. But then she'll likely go up against the scorching hot Jankovic in the third round, who has won two Tier I titles on clay this season. She'll be the underdog in that match and, unless the Serbian goes on a walkabout, Venus had better find her Clouds 9 and 10 pretty quickly.

"I always want the ultimate result, which is obviously holding the trophy," she said. "I think most players dream of that. I'm not different than anyone else."

Simply Stunning, Simply Serena
:worship: 57 Consecutive Weeks as World #1 :worship:​
:worship: Olympic Gold Medalist ('00 Doubles w/ Venus) :worship:​

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Great and moving article. I don't even want to think about how her career could have been totally different had she not played that final. That cannot be changed now, but I hope somehow and someway she can find that old form and play amazing tennis once again. She needs some more big titles.
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