Venus guns for third straight Grand Slam title
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- A familiar pose best captures women's tennis today: Venus Williams at the net, racket cocked, ready to slam an overhead, a picture of aggression, intimidation and domination.
The striking image serves as a symbol at the start of the new year, with Williams poised to overpower her sport. All she has to do is follow through.
It's not that easy, of course. The Australian Open begins Monday with Williams' formidable rivals on hand - sister Serena, defending champion Lindsay Davenport and three-time champ Martina Hingis. And doubts about Venus Williams' durability and devotion to tennis persist, leading skeptics to wonder how long she can dominate the WTA Tour.
But there's no question she reached a rarefied level last year. Despite sitting out the first four months with tendinitis in both wrists, she won 35 consecutive matches and six consecutive tournaments. Her first Grand Slam championship came at Wimbledon, and she added titles at the U.S. Open and Sydney Olympics, becoming the first player to sweep all three events since Steffi Graf in 1988.
"No one would have thought that out of nowhere, after an injury, Venus would come back and play like she did," Davenport said.
Williams capped the year by signing an endorsement deal with Reebok for an estimated $40 million, a record for a female athlete. She boasts that her two major titles are just the beginning, and she'll bid for her third in a row starting Monday.
While the third-seeded Williams is the player to beat in the women's draw, there's no clear favorite among the men. Gustavo Kuerten is top-seeded after finishing 2000 ranked No. 1, but two-time champion Pete Sampras is the choice of oddsmakers.
Other threats include defending champ Andre Agassi, Australian Lleyton Hewitt and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who always seems to play well Down Under.
All the top contenders played warm-up events in Australia this week, but Williams' preparation was characteristically unorthodox. Following a 21/2-month layoff, she entered only doubles with her sister at a Sydney tournament, and they lost in the first round Tuesday to Hingis and Monica Seles.
But Williams scoffed at the suggestion she'll go into the Australian Open rusty.
"If I'm not ready by now, then I should just go home," she said.
Williams rejects the single-minded approach to tennis that most champions take. She likes to cook, sew and read, studies foreign languages, attends fashion school and admits she's easily bored.
In November her enigmatic father, Richard, said his daughters might curtail their schedules unless the WTA Tour shared more of its revenue with the family. But Venus played only 10 tournaments as it was last year, a light load even given the time she missed because of injury.
"I refuse to kill myself," she said. "If I don't feel I can play, or if I'm hurt or injured or even tired, I won't force myself to do anything. I love my life, and tennis is just not my life, and it never has been."
Such a sentiment must comfort Hingis, who clings desperately to the No. 1 ranking. She was dominant until the Williams sisters came along, but it's been two years since her fifth and most recent Grand Slam title.
Now, brash as ever, Hingis says she senses an opportunity.
"I think all of us - me, Monica and also Lindsay - have maybe a little edge over the Williamses right now, because we've played a lot more matches," she said. "Even the younger players aren't scared to go out there and play them."
That might change in Melbourne the first time Venus winds up to hit an overhead. Then she'll again have opponents running for cover.