Rejuvenated Venus sends message to challengers

When Venus Williams reached the Wimbledon final last year her left knee was so heavily bandaged that her leg looked like a badly lagged water pipe. The American wore the strapping for much of the season, but when she won her first title for nearly 12 months here at the Barclays Dubai Championships on Saturday she looked a picture of health and fitness.

Williams' 6-3, 7-5 victory over Victoria Azarenka, who is breathing down her neck at No 6 in the world rankings, put the seal on a week in which the 29-year-old has shown she has no intention of letting a younger generation take over yet. Her 42nd singles title, which puts her one ahead of Justine Henin at the top of the list of current players, came in Williams' 700th match and after wins here over opponents aged 20, 21, 18, 22 and 20.

"I really had a hard time last year with my fitness, but I learned how to manage my pain better," Williams explained after her triumph. "It's not easy, especially when you keep playing and you don't get better. This year I am able to get better. As you see, I have no huge horrible strap. I hated that thing. I don't want it ever again.

"I'm doing OK. I feel like I'm moving better and better. Last year it was difficult to move at my best, because I just couldn't. Now I find myself getting faster and faster the better that I feel."

It was the American's strength and ball-striking power that eventually made the difference against an opponent regarded as one of the best up-and-coming players. While the first set was comparatively comfortable for Williams, Azarenka briefly threatened when she recovered from 2-0 down to lead 5-4 in the second before crumbling under the weight of Williams' serve and returns.

*Anne Keothavong, the former British No 1, will return to action in Indian Wells next month buoyed by her form following her return from a serious knee injury making the semi-finals of her first event back on the main Sony Ericsson tour in Memphis before losing 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to Sofia Arvidsson.

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