What cheek. At first blush, it seemed absurd for Venus Williams to complain that her self-designed outfit—a lacy black dress over flesh-toned underwear that highlighted what she described as her "well-developed" backside and made the first week of the 2010 French Open resemble a production of Can-Can—had become a distraction. "I may have to retire it," she said last Friday. "I really want the focus to be on the tennis." After years in which Williams seemed more interested in her design business and her dogs, her sudden enthusiasm for the game actually felt real. Provocation has long been a Williams family specialty, but so is winning—and in light of her recent play, Venus's Folies Roland Garros costume came off as an ill-considered lark from an earlier time, before she recaptured the scent of victory.
Indeed, by the time she hit Paris, Williams had the tour's best record for the year, 26--4, and had climbed back to No. 2 in the world ranking for the first time since 2003. Although clay is her worst surface, she won on the dirt in Acapulco and made the final in Madrid. And in Paris she reached the fourth round, her best showing at Roland Garros since 2006, before losing to Russia's Nadia Petrova 6--4, 6--3.
The truest measure of Williams's renewal, however, is still a few weeks away: Wimbledon, where she has won the singles title five times and will again be a favorite to lift the silver plate. The other favorite, of course, will be her sister Serena, who holds the top ranking and played for a spot in the French Open quarterfinals on Monday.
Venus's return on the cusp of age 30 is a singular achievement. A plague of wrist, knee, shoulder and abdominal injuries knocked her down to No. 54 in early 2007, and despite winning Wimbledon that year she appeared resigned to ceding the stage to her little sister. But this year Venus's health "has been a lot better," she said—and, just as crucial, the woman who often seemed to keep tennis at arm's length has come to understand that it's a gift "to still be fresh and strong and still have talent in my hands to get the ball on the court.... I don't at this point feel any slowdown. I just feel like speeding up." In fact, even though she has lost to Serena four straight times, "[I] would love to take the Number 1 ranking," Venus said.
But Venus's trajectory has been harder to predict than Serena's. Even with her five Wimbledon and two U.S. Open titles, Venus has spent only 11 weeks at No. 1 in her 14-year career. Her place in the game has always been as much about her potential as about her results, and a sudden fade has been as likely as a glorious run. This comeback, for instance, has included brutal losses to Kim Clijsters and Jelena Jankovic.
Still, as seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert put it, "Serena and Venus are the two best out there and have been the last 10 years. Even if Venus is ranked 6 or 7? In a money match I'd put my money on her."
The place to do that will be a betting window in London.
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