Women's singles: Venus rising to challenge at her field of dreams
The defending champion returns from injuries and the world of fashion determined to lead the Williams charge
It is that time of the summer when the Williams sisters pop up through a trap door, snaffle the Wimbledon women's trophy and head off back home to Florida, while the rest of the female tennis world wonders how they keep on doing it with so little match practice. Six times in the past eight years this has happened, and if Venus Williams has anything to do with it, that will become seven out of nine at the end of the next fortnight.
Back in town and promoting a picture book of herself and her twin loves – tennis and fashion – that is weighty enough to demo-lish most coffee tables, Venus confirms that not playing very much beforehand remains her recipe for success at the Big W. This is not, she is careful to point out, the same as not caring about her profession. In fact, she cared so much about losing in the third round at the French Open three weeks ago that she punished herself by flying home at the back of the plane. Or coach class, as they say in America. Not at all bad, either, was the verdict: "I was extremely comfortable and happy. I sat next to an opera singer."
One of the sporting world's richest women, Venus defends the cheapest way of flying as something she frequently does, "because otherwise it is too expensive, they are always charging for things like extra baggage". However, perhaps as part of that careful pre-Wimbledon build-up, Venus treated herself to a better seat for the London trip. So if a miniature of the Venus Rosewater Dish, symbolic of supremacy in the women's game, goes back home with her this time, the 28-year-old Williams has ensured that she and it will travel in better style, with or without an opera singer alongside.
Venus has won Wimbledon four times (2000-01, 2005 and 2007) and her sister Serena twice (2002-03), and she is as loud in her praise of the tournament as such a quietly spoken person could be. It is, she says, "a place I've dreamt about as long as I can remember, a place which has become the home of so many fantastic memories for me and my family".
Such success has been achieved by zeroing in on priorities. She has not played any other grass tournament since 1998 and, asked how she still manages to do so well on that surface, her answer is, like George Mallory on Everest, because it is the summit, because it is there.
"This is the best tournament of all to do well at, and by the time I get here I am extremely determined, because I do feel I know how to play on grass," she says.
Wimbledon will be only Venus' eighth tournament of 2008, the same total as Serena. She has won merelyone title, in Seoul, since Wimbledon last July, partlybecause of injuries, such as ongoing wrist and knee troubles, and an illness she declines to discuss. Partly, too, because of her involvementin the fashion world, which includes recent graduation from the US Fashion Design School.
Distractions such as this have never halted her at Wimbledon previously. In 2005 Venus became champion as 14th seed, a record low which was eclipsed last summer when she triumphed as a 30th-ranked woman who had been elevated to 23rd seed on the strength of previous results. This time the sisters are seeded sixth and seventh, which still seems far short of the true measure of their threat to the rest of the field.
Venus said she spent just a couple of days getting over the pain of her straight-sets third-round defeat in Paris by Flavia Pennetta. She was angered and frus-trated at being sent out on court at eight o'clock on a cold, wet evening. "But I am a lot better these days at getting over things like that, it used to take me two weeks." Back home in Florida she practised assiduously on hard courts, sometimes with Serena, in readiness for a busy spell which will also take in the Olympics and the US Open, but took care to rest mind and body, too. Though she devotes much time to her own clothing line, Venus is less eager to join in the vogue for glamourising the women's game. Asked if she was behind such endeavours, she grinned: "I am behind winning Wimbledon."
Nor does Venus feel distressed that the state of women's tennis in her homeland is worse than it was when the Williamses first took the tour by storm. The next ranked American behind them (at 26) is the 32-year-old Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 Wimbledon champion who is treading the comeback trail after giving birth to a son a year ago.
"There is not much I can do about the lack of other Americans," she says, "so I don't worry too much about it." Nor is there envy at the lavish welcome accorded Ana Ivanovic when she returned home to Serbia after winning at Roland Garros. "America is a huge country; we have so many star athletes, movie stars and singers. In a smaller country it is probably more special. I am just one of the crowd at home."
More frenzy in Belgrade would be assured if Ivanovic, reigning at No 1 after Paris, were to win here. For the first time in Wimbledon's history, two Serbs head the women's seeds, with the other one, Jelena Jankovic, a potential threat to Venus in her quarter of the draw, having eliminated her – again on a cold, wet evening – in the third round of the 2006 Championships.
Never knowingly one to waste breath on talking up an opponent, Venus smiles and says of Jankovic: "She enjoys playing defensive."
The one other competitor who could trouble the Williamses, and who is certainly not defensive, is Maria Sharapova, who beat Serena to win Wimbledon in 2004 aged 17. Having won the Australian Open in January, the US-based Russian's subsequent progress has been hampered by ongoing shoulder problems, and she was rapidly divested by Ivanovic of the No 1 ranking which fell into her lap with the sudden retirement of Justine Henin.
Despite the shoulder, Sharapova has already played 33 singles matches this year, compared to a 2007 total of 51, and claims a hunger to add to her three Grand Slams, whether she is pitted against a pair of high-flying Serbs or two women named Williams.
But one thing Maria and everyone else lining up on the starting line will need to bear in mind is to payfull respect to the Coach Class Champion.
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