Tennis: Venus and a cloud of hot air

High fashion and accusations of low cunning mean Williams is always the centre of attention.
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The Independent Online
THE SEVENTH dress that will never be worn and the puzzle of "bathroom break abuse" highlighted the disappearance of the extrovert Venus Williams from the US Open on Friday.

Having caused a sensation by reaching last year's final unseeded and at her first attempt, Venus fell one hurdle shorter this time, beaten in straight sets 6-4 6-4 by Lindsay Davenport in the semi-finals. If she had been unready for the avalanche of publicity 12 months ago, Venus and her team had missed no trick this time round.

The fashion folk had designed for her open-backed dresses of a different colour to be worn in each round. On a couple of occasions, when required to perform at the night sessions in unseasonably cold and windy weather, Venus was in danger of hypothermia in pursuit of sponsor satisfaction.

In the semi-finals the dress was of a red which matadors use in their capes to entice bulls by the horns, but Davenport was not to be goaded. The dress Venus was to have worn for her appearance in the final was a chauvinistic red, white and blue - "of course, with matching hair and nails," she revealed. But, boo hoo, it was destined never to see the light of Centre Court or the TV cameras. "I am deeply saddened not to have the opportunity to wear the seventh dress," said Venus in the new, precise way she enunciates her thoughts. "I am going to put it away in a coffin and bury it."

However, she added, she could not spend time being disappointed with her fifth defeat by Davenport. "I need to spend time planning for the next session." Nor did she share one sympathetic questioner's view that she was still short of experience in the big time. "I was ready today so I don't think I should blame it on lack of experience," she said. "If you give someone a racket they should be able to use it. I've been practising, I should be able to come out and play ball. If I'm not ready, I should stay home."

That said, Venus conceded that there may still be some way to go before she can attain that No 1 ranking which, last spring, she had predicted would be hers by about now. "What is this, my seventh Grand Slam? I haven't been through too many trials."

Not that she misses many tricks. Perhaps, most notoriously, there is the bathroom break stunt which she pulled again yesterday and which was later savaged by Davenport. Having been outhit and outthought in a 36- minute first set, Williams dropped serve again in the second set to fall behind 3-2, at which she requested the toilet visit which is now available in the professional game. Davenport, waiting to serve for a crucial 4- 2 lead, was left sitting at courtside for several minutes, wrapping her jacket back to front around her body to ward off the evening chill.

The experience was nothing new for Davenport. "I played her a couple of weeks ago in Stanford and when I got up a set and a break she called an injury time-out. I was kind of laughing that she might try it again and when she did I thought `Oh, God'." Asked whether the break had been a ploy, Venus smiled. "No, not at all. Self-explanatory."

Davenport was not reassured. "I'm not saying she didn't have to go to the bathroom but it's happening a lot with all these players now. They all seem to be doing it. I think it's terrible, it's almost become like gamesmanship and I don't like it. I've never taken a bathroom break in my six years as a professional. This year there have been more of them than ever.

"I think there should be a rule that you have to take a break in the first three games of a set or when your serve is coming up. If it's three- all in the second set, you lose a point or something. It just happens too much to be legitimate."

Davenport was one of the first to speak out about the attitude of Venus and her sister Serena when they appeared on the tour, complaining that they were unfriendly. Now, she thought, things were better. "Having been on the tour for another year I think Venus and her sister are a little bit more social.

"But it's tough. All of a sudden they are thrust into this spotlight with a lot of other players and they probably don't know totally how to respond. They are much more friendly now because I think they realise they are going to be around for a long time."

True though that may be, Venus is still not prepared to concede that she is not the greatest. Asked if she had lost to a better player, Venus said: "I would say she's had better results than I have had."

Having announced in the spring that she expected to have ousted Martina Hingis as world No 1 by the autumn, Venus needed to backtrack a little. "No matter what I do this year it's not plausible." Then she thought about it and amended her forecast a little. "But it could happen this year. I just need to concentrate on each match." And wear the right dresses, perhaps.

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