Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Williams resumes normal service

The women's game: Big-hitting American overcomes her crisis of over-confidence
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The Independent Online
IN ENGLAND, everything still stops for tea. At precisely 4.30pm yesterday the occupants of the front row of the Centre Court's royal box rose in unison, folded their travelling rugs, and filed out. At the time, Venus Williams, of the United States, was leading Miriam Oremans, of the Netherlands, by 6-1 and 3-0. And Ms Williams, clearly mindful of local etiquette, decided that she had better stop, too.

When the VIPs returned, half an hour later, the match was still on. The score was 5-5, and Oremans had just broken the Williams serve for the third consecutive time. Seeing the honoured guests settling back into their seats, the 19- year-old American decided the time had come to resume normal service. A couple of minutes later the match was over and she had won by 6-1, 7- 5.

Afterwards, Venus was polite enough to give a different reason for the delay in finishing off her opponent. "I think in general I just got over- confident," she said. "And I lapsed. It's something I've got to watch out for in the future. But at least I don't have the problem of being under-confident. I'm a little over-confident, which can be highly dangerous also."

It's unlikely that anyone will ever be able to accuse the Williams sisters of suffering from under-confidence. Their father and mother brought them up to know their worth and to put their faith in their abilities. Two years ago, when she was about to make her Wimbledon debut, Venus said: "I never go out there thinking, `She's better than me'. Since I was six, or maybe even since before I can remember, I've believed that I could beat anyone."

Her sister Serena is not here, having pulled out of the tournament last Friday, apparently suffering from flu. Venus said she misses her company, but there seemed to be no shadows in her mind as she ripped into Oremans. The 26-year-old Dutch woman, one of the last serve-and-volley specialists on the women's tour, is currently ranked at No 55 in the WTA list, 50 places below Venus. Oremans won precisely three points from the first five games of the match, during which she found her own tactics being used against her.

Williams, her 6ft 1in frame protruding from a small white dress, looked ready to rumble. Even her knock-up was full of menace. When a pigeon flapped in the Centre Court rafters as she prepared to serve the third point of the first game, she turned her head and fixed it with such a glare that you expected singed tail-feathers to flutter down. Right from the get- go she was firing returns at Oremans' ankles, sliding volleys into the empty spaces and unfurling backhands down the line.

And that serve, of course. If Venus Williams' body was built for one purpose, it was serve a tennis ball. The result is a beautiful and awe- inspiring sight. In the fifth game, with the score at 30-0, she whacked down a delivery that scorched the very air. The spectators were gasping even before they had time to register the figure of 123mph on the courtside speedometer. It felt good, she said later. Had she hit a faster one? "Oh, yes," she laughed. "The fastest I've had on record was 127. And I have to break my record. I've been stagnant since October. That's no good."

At this stage, the match was a glorious embarrassment. Oremans could have been forgiven for switching off and thinking about getting back to her piano and her books. But this is a player who has reached three WTA finals, all on grass. In her first, at Eastbourne six years ago, she lost to Martina Navratilova. And she has twice reached the last 16 here, losing last year to Natasha Zvereva.

And finally, in the sixth game, Oremans won two points in a row for the first time. Three, in fact, starting with a marvellous volleyed pass. It was enough to give her the game, although Venus then served out to love to take the set, which had occupied just over 19 minutes.

The second set started with the same kind of Williams whirlwind. Marvellous cross-court shots from both wings swept her to 2-0 before her opponent began to dig in. The third game, served by Oremans, contained several scintillating rallies and went to three deuces before Williams finished it off with an imperious backhand volley.

And at 4-0, with the royal box severely depopulated, Williams hit real trouble. Oremans won an easy service game, and then piled the pressure on the Williams serve, moving bravely to 5-5. She was slugging it out, sometimes going eye to eye at the net without flinching, and occasionally breaking the rhythm by floating a careful lob or chip behind her opponent.

"I think I was still serving well," Williams said later, "but it was just the activities after the serve that weren't as good. That's what made the difference. I think sometimes she came in and took the opportunities before I could, or before I would. There aren't too many serve-and-volleyers left. I serve and volley quite a bit myself these days on grass, but she was always looking to get to the net. I can camp out on the baseline myself if I think it's necessary, but I don't want to do that."

The rallies were often short and crisp, but never repetitive. Venus blew two match points, but accepted the third with a 113mph ace. The match had lasted 67 minutes, and had given her a successful reintroduction to a surface on which she should always be specially threatening.

She is a curious girl, with a strange, other-wordly manner. Sometimes she makes mistakes that look childish, and occasionally they will cost her tournaments she ought to win. But she adds new dimensions to the women's game, both technical and aesthetic. Quite simply, she redraws the geometry. And she will never, ever be boring.