Venus Williams appears to be back ... at least for now
Posted: Tuesday June 28, 2005 4:57PM; Updated: Wednesday June 29, 2005 9:56AM
Venus Williams defeated Mary Pierce in straight sets to set up a showdown with Maria Sharapova on Thursday.
WIMBLEDON, England -- It has been two years since we've seen this: Venus Williams screeching on every shot, winning long rallies, playing like someone who needs the game.
On Tuesday, she met -- and buried -- fellow Floridian Mary Pierce in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, first in a 6-0 first-set runaway, then in a wondrously revealing, 22-point tiebreak that sealed up the second set and a spot in one Wimbledon semifinal. So what if she now has to face defending champ Maria Sharapova, the teenager who, for the moment, seemingly holds this tournament as well in her teeth? After Pierce sprayed a backhand wide to lose the tiebreak, 12-10, the expressions on Williams' face ran from joy to relief to the most telling sign she might, indeed, be ready to put her fingerprints back on women's tennis. Venus laughed.
She spun around once, twice, as the crowd stood to give her a rolling ovation, breaking at last into pure giggling as the applause kept coming. Five times in the tiebreak Pierce held set point, five chances to force a decisive third set. Williams held off each one, outhitting Pierce from the baseline in four fierce exchanges, and finishing off one seven-stroke rally at 8-8 with a sweet forehand volley. With each swing of the racket, Venus' voice rose in this wail of want; forget Sharapova, the last time women's tennis heard anything close, Monica Seles was in her prime and savaging the tour. Suddenly, in the career most in tennis had deemed all but over, there's new sign of life.
You won't hear that from her. Over the years, the 25-year-old Venus has perfected a smiling opaqueness in her interviews, taking offense where none exists, deflecting the tamest topics with mystifying stubbornness. No, she says, as a two-time Wimbledon champ she didn't take her No. 14 seeding this year as an insult. No, she hasn't felt she's slipped at all from her once-dominating level. Though she hasn't won a Grand Slam title since the 2001 U.S. Open, "I'm always playing well," Venus says. "To be quite honest." When, on Monday, Venus avenged Jill Craybas' third-round upset over sister Serena by crushing Craybas, 6-0, 6-2, and then vaguely acknowledged "I definitely would like to, you know, do it a little bit for my sister," you half-expected the heavens to open up for the start of Armageddon. Stop the presses: Venus Admits Most Obvious Thing in World.
So no, it's no surprise Williams is not owning up to her best run of tennis since Wimbledon '03, when she re-tore an abdominal muscle in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters, lost the final to Serena and began a two-year campaign of sub-par play, missed tournaments and growing speculation over her commitment. But the fact is, with her father/coach Richard wearing a nutty beret and making vague claims about taking Venus and Serena to see -- don't ask -- a hamburger salesman, Venus seems completely present on the court, approaching each ball, each match with a conviction that used to be second nature. Her abdominal injury remains a factor; Venus says that after too many matches, it will always ail her.
But whether it's the fact that she's relatively healthy, or that Serena's loss reawakened the sense of family honor, or that Sharapova -- the girl who humiliated Serena in last year's Wimbledon final -- stands in her way, Venus looks like a different player. In maybe the clearest sign yet of her renewed passion, Venus didn't quite deflect the usual question about tennis being a high priority for her. "Tennis," she said, "Is pretty much up there for me."
Don't carve it in stone: With the Williamses you can never be sure about anything. But it's certainly worth scrawling on a chalkboard. For today, anyway, Venus is back.