Venus struggles for form that made a goddess

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The Independent Online

Venus Williams' most graceful, expressive sequence yesterday was her victory pirouette. One moment she was scrapping, dour-faced, even slightly weary, which is how she looked through much of her 6-2, 6-4 first-round win over Eva Birnerova. The next, after the 20-year-old Czech plonked another shot long, she was a ballerina on a jewellery box, a twirling smile. The only thing missing was a tinkly "Fur Elise".

The concern for Venus - the queen of the lawns here in 2000 and 2001, before her younger sister, Serena, reigned in 2002 and 2003 - is that her game, if not quite out of tune, is far from hitting the high notes. Her serve was hard (rising to 118mph) and functional (she won 67 per cent of service points). But it fell short of the brutality of old.

Her movement was fine, by most players' standards. But by the heights of her own, it looked somewhat slow, lacking fluidity.

"Today was a little strange because she was always playing me up the middle," she explained.

"Then the ball's bouncing strange. I have long arms and legs. When the ball gets close to me, I'm not able to move forward because I have to get out of my own way."

That might be true, but it was not the kind of thing she was saying often, if at all, five years ago. Nor, then, was she making so many errors. There were plenty yesterday, 10 unforced, including several overhit drives, a couple of routine volleys that ended up in the net and one shank that propelled the ball towards the Court 2 crowd.

Venus won in the end, however, because she was still simply better than her opponent, the world No 111 who secured a main-draw place as a lucky loser from the qualifying tournament at Roehampton.

The first set was seized through superior power. The second was wrestled from Birnerova, who even threatened a comeback after breaking Williams in the ninth game to trail only 4-5 before throwing away her serve and the match.

A win is a win. That was the subtext of Venus's post-match analysis.

"Everything went well," she said. "That felt good to me. I got to hit a lot of balls. It was sunny. That was nice."

But there was little spark, and when she was asked about a potential fourth-round meeting with her sister, the tone of her response indicated that she was not counting her chickens.

"Is that match looming large?" she was asked. "No," she said. "Couple of matches away still."

Last year Venus made a controversial second-round exit to Karolina Sprem after a match including an umpiring error that handed Sprem an unwarranted point. Venus, who next faces Nicole Pratt of Australia, insisted yesterday that she had not dwelt on that.

"You can't change the past," she said. "You can just try to learn from it."

As she was talking, Serena was waiting to start her own first-round match, against another minnow, her compatriot Angela Haynes. Venus last played Serena in March, in Miami, beating her for the first time in four years.