I went to Centre Court yesterday to watch Venus Williams, the defending champion, open her tournament with a 6-1, 6-0 win over Bethanie Mattek.
We had expected Venus to win, of course, but more important than the margin of victory was the style. Venus was positive and fluid. I had a chat afterwards with her father, my good friend Richard Williams, and the word that stood out for me in his own appraisal was "comfortable". That bodes very well.
Venus is in shape and on course. She was standing very close to the baseline, hitting balls on the rise. She was very offensive, coming in smoothly and to devastating effect, hitting half a dozen swing volleys and half a dozen block volleys.
Back in the day when I pioneered the swing volley and taught it as a staple to the likes of Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier, even those guys said: "What is this? You're joking, surely?" But these days it is almost a standard stroke, a weapon in the armoury of many players. Venus used it well yesterday, her height and power and sheer athleticism giving her the tools to execute it.
She was also returning well, and moving well. There were two irrelevant double-faults in total, but her serve was on, and quick. (That said, Mattek was also serving at up to 120mph).
Mattek did not do too badly, given the disparity in ranking and the size of the stage. Her serve was OK, and in the opening games, especially her own first service game, which is the only game of the match she won, she gave signs she was up for the fight. During one rally she hit a drop shot, which Venus had the pace and reach to drop back. Mattek reached it, Venus volleyed and Mattek passed. She later lobbed and then hit a winner to take that game.
For all that, there was only ever going to be one winner. The key for me was that when Mattek served and volleyed she had no chance because she was hitting the first volley before getting to the service line. That's a no-no against Venus, an invitation to defeat. The velocity of Venus's returns were just too much.
I think for Mattek to have had any chance, she need to try more slices and dinks. She could not go hit-for-hit with Venus because that would always be a losing strategy against Venus's power. Still it is a lesson for next time.
On a digressive note, I've learnt a valuable lesson myself this week. Watching Martina Hingis on Monday, my cell phone went off while I was in the stand on No 2 Court. I'd forgotten to switch it off. I am immensely relieved it didn't seem to distract anyone too much, and it won't happen again. In fact, I left my phone in my car yesterday, to make sure!
Back to Venus, who said afterwards: "It seemed like I had all the answers when she came up with some very good shots." She did. One match at a time, but good so far.
E-mail me and win a scholarship
I'm offering a one-month scholarship at my academy in America to the sender of what I judge to be the best e-mail sent to me during the tournament. Just tell me: how can I help you, and why? Explain to me why you (or your son or daughter) would benefit from a month's tuition in Florida. The scholarship is available only to under-18s. Children can e-mail me themselves, or parents on their behalf. Each e-mail can also ask a question on any tennis-related subject that you'd like me to answer in these pages. Maybe you want a tip to improve your game. Maybe you want to know about some of the highs and lows of my 50-plus years in the game as a coach. I'll answer as many of your questions as I can, and at the end of the event one young hopeful will be heading for Florida. I look forward to hearing from you, and I'm already fascinated by e-mails that are coming in. There's a lot of young people out there who are hungry to play tennis and, as a tennis missionary, that's all good.
Federer v Borg: a fantasy to savour
Today's reader e-mail comes from Jane Staniforth, who posed a delicious question. She wanted me to pick two great players from different eras and imagine a match between them. I've picked Roger Federer and Bjorn Borg, on grass. Borg made few unforced errors, he had a reliable good serve, fantastic movement, complete control. He could volley when needed, was solid on both sides. He never broke focus, perhaps even less so over many years than the awesome Federer. Anyone who wanted to beat him had one heck of a task. They had to truly earn it. Federer's groundstokes, especially on the forehand side, will give him a better chance to hit outright winners. His one-handed backhand has power, spin, slice and dink, it's so versatile. Borg was more stoic. Roger's movement is excellent, he mixes up his game, he's comfortable at the net, he can slice out wide and ace at will. Both men have excellent physical make-up. It would be a long match, a classic. I think I'd take Federer to edge it, but I wouldn't want it ever to end.
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