Venus descending - but don't dare count her out

Champion won't quit until she has the full silver set
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The Independent Online

If the criterion for winning at Wimbledon is solely one of form and fitness, Venus Williams could be written off right now. But Venus, as she showed last year, is a class act, an act with a difference that defies analysis. So here she comes again, in defence of the crown she has captured three times, having played just four tournaments and 14 matches this year (won 10, lost four), but talking a great fight.

Wimbledon have responded to Venus's track record by elevating her from a ranking of 12 to a seeding of six, the only piece of tinkering with the women's seeds, and it would seem sound judgement, since she won last summer as 14th seed. "Twelfth in the rankings is not where I belong, in my head I'm always a champ," is her particular explanation for this one.

After defeat at the quarter-final stage of the French Open, Venus flew home to Florida, something she regularly does between the two Grand Slams of Europe, opting to do her preparation for Wimbledon on hard courts and arriving in London last Wednesday. It's enough, she claims. "I have no problem adapting to grass, I kinda rough it." Acknowledging "I'm not playing as well as I'm capable of", she says we will see more consistency from her at Wimbledon than has been apparent at her three tournaments on the European clay: Warsaw, Rome and Paris. In Rome, beaten in the semi-finals by Martina Hingis, she admitted making "about 30,000 errors" after capturing the first set 6-0.

So can she win Wimbledon back to back, as she did in 2000-01? "I don't come to a tournament not expecting to win," she parries. "I think I have the skills to be a contender wherever I play. Winning again is the goal and I am confident I can do what it takes, but Grand Slams are a long couple of weeks and I'm sure some of the other players will have something to say about that.

"And nothing ever comes on a silver platter," she adds, "or should I say a Rosewater Dish?" Venus is excited about the traditional champion's walk on to Centre Court on Tuesday to begin the defence of her title. "I have done it twice already and I welcome it every time, because it's an honour and a privilege."

Having clocked up her 26th birthday before flying out from Florida, the woman who has won two US Opens as well as the three Wimbledons recognises that time is flitting by. "I know I need to be out there making it happen. Be aggressive, fly to the moon. There is only so long your career lasts, I can't keep playing until I'm 50. Maybe Navratilova can, but I'm not as strong as she is. I've got to do what I can right now, while I am still young and ready to go."

Has she, then, set a retirement date? "Yeah, but I'm not talking about it. I'll be around for a while yet, torturing you guys for quite a few more years." The question of retirement has more frequently been posed about her younger sister, Serena, who has not played since the Australian Open in January, but who is talking - yet again - about another return to the tour, this time at the Cincinnati tournament a week after Wimbledon ends. "At the French Open," says Venus, "people were asking me if Serena is really injured or is she retiring. I told them, 'First of all, don't count out us Williamses; second, I do know when she is coming back; and third, I'm not telling you.'" But now the word is out, and it is Cincinnati.

The dismal news for American women's tennis is that Venus is the only seeded American this year, or as she puts it, "a lone flag waving gently in the wind". She adds: "I don't know what has happened. People keep asking me, and if I knew what is going on I would tell, but I don't. Hopefully, soon there will be some kind of resurgence, but until that time I'll still be around carrying that flag. Serena will be back quite soon and both of us can still make some waves."

As well as her singles defence, Venus lets on, she is very excited about the prospect of entering the mixed doubles, since she is apparently attempting to collect all the titles from all of the Grand Slams before calling it a day. She will not play women's doubles "because I only play with Serena", but says she has been approached by three males keen on partnering her.

"I really, really want to win the mixed here," she says. "I have kind of decided against Federer as my partner, I need to call Serena and ask what she thinks I should do." Last year, with Mark Knowles of the Bahamas, she won one round at Wimbledon, but claims it helped her become singles champion. "It made the world of difference to my game. I played mixed before I played Mary Pierce and, seriously, it changed my whole game. I got so much better."

Something else she has learned in the absence forced by her elbow injury is "the ability to accept my limitations and don't expect you'll be better next day."

So now the aim is "staying healthy and really getting in the groove"; in time, she hopes, to do well at Wimbledon, because it means more to her than any other tournament. "Wimbledon is the pinnacle," proclaims Venus. And she stands primed to scale it once more.

IN THE COURT OF KINGS AND QUEENS

TOP 16 MEN'S SEEDS

1 Roger Federer (Switz)

2 Rafael Nadal (Sp)

3 Andy Roddick (US)

4 David Nalbandian (Arg)

5 Ivan Ljubicic (Croa)

6 Lleyton Hewitt (Aus)

7 Mario Ancic (Croa)

8 James Blake (US)

9 Nikolay Davydenko (Rus)

10 Fernando Gonzalez (Chile)

11 Tommy Robredo (Sp)

12 Thomas Johansson (Swe)

13 Tomas Berdych (Cz Rep)

14 Radek Stepanek (Cz Rep)

15 Sébastien Grosjean (Fr)

16 Gaston Gaudio (Arg)

TOP 16 WOMEN'S SEEDS

1 Amélie Mauresmo (Fr)

2 Kim Clijsters (Bel)

3 Justine Henin-Hardenne (Bel)

4 Maria Sharapova (Rus)

5 Svetlana Kuznetsova (Rus)

6 Venus Williams (US)

7 Elena Dementieva (Rus)

8 Patty Schnyder (Switz)

8 Anastasia Myskina (Rus)

10 Nicole Vaidisova (Cz Rep)

11 Francesca Schiavone (It)

12 Martina Hingis (Switz)

13 Anna-Lena Groenefeld (Ger)

14 Dinara Safina (Rus)

15 Daniela Hantuchova (Slovak)

16 Flavia Pennetta (It)

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