Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Venus' statement: I'm in it to win it
By Wayne Drehs
WIMBLEDON, England When the ball finally met the ground just beyond the baseline, bringing an end to the 22-point tiebreaker and the 1 hour and 29 minute match, Venus Williams nearly collapsed.
She held her arms high above her head, smiled as wide as she possibly could and began to fall to her knees. But she caught herself, instead pirouetting around the court, waving to seemingly every fan who looked down upon her while mouthing the words, "I love you."
These emotions were real. They were not something contrived by agents or choreographed by image promoters but something that poured out of 25-year-old Williams like water flowing out of a faucet.
"Oh my gosh," she breathlessly said just afterward. "That tiebreak was unbelievable. I just kept hitting winners, and out of nowhere she kept coming back with them. But somehow I stayed in there and pulled it out."
In doing so, she sent a very simple message to the three ladies who join her in the women's semifinals Thursday: I'm here to win.
It's a stark contrast from her tennis life for much of the last 10 days, when Venus has had to answer questions as to whether she belonged and whether tennis even matters anymore. Even after Tuesday's 6-0, 7-6 (10) victory over Mary Pierce, her father, Richard Williams, told the BBC that tennis isn't a top priority for Serena or Venus.
But all one had to do Tuesday on women's quarterfinal day at The Championships was look at Venus' "awe shucks" smile and joyous celebration to realize that it does matter. That she does care. And that she expects to win.
Against Pierce, the 30-year-old French Open finalist, Williams came out flying, needing just 21 minutes to win the first six games of the match and take a 1-0 lead.
Pierce didn't win her first game until the 37th minute, but the match was tight from there. Both players held serve throughout, forcing the set to a tiebreaker, where Pierce squandered five potential set points.
Pierce was in control throughout, and Williams did not lead the tiebreaker until 7-6. Williams blew a potential match point by hitting a forehand return long, and Pierce responded by winning three of the next four points. But she couldn't put Williams away. Trailing 11-10 with the serve, Pierce sent a return long, Williams won the match and the smile-filled celebration was under way.
When was the last time she felt so overjoyed and so much emotion? Twenty-four hours earlier, believe it or not.
"In the mixed doubles match," Venus explained to a room full of laughter. "I was very happy then. We had a really tough match, so I felt like I just kept it going from there because we had such a fight. So today I was ready for that. It was a blessing."
But the world wasn't watching on Monday the way everyone was on Tuesday, when Williams' radiant smile expressed not only joy, but confidence. A feeling that she can win. That she will win. Williams has been saying that all week, but actually going out and doing it against Pierce, in a fiercely competitive second set, proves it. To herself. To the other gals in the locker room. And to the media.
A big reason for the newfound confidence? Health. Williams showed up for her post-match news conference in a tight-fitting black tank top, and her body looked as though she had been practicing Pilates for the last six months. Without a break.
Williams, who struggled with a stomach injury for much of 2004 and took a four-week break earlier this year citing mental and physical fatigue, said this is the healthiest she has been since 2001.
"The last thing you need out there in a match is to have to choose which ball you're going to run for because you're tired or you can't breathe or your legs burn," she said. "That's no way to be. [Being healthy] is one less thing you have to worry about out there."
Williams has been helped by a new strategy of attacking her opponents closer and closer to the net. Tuesday, she won 10 of her 11 net approaches.
"No one wants to be attacked," Williams said. "No one likes that. Whoever is forcing the play is usually going to be the victor."
With the victory over Pierce, Williams' Wimbledon record improves to 40-6. She has yet to drop a set in this year's tournament despite being seeded a disappointing 14th.
Earlier this week, Lindsay Davenport said she thought it was a disgrace that Williams, the 2000 and 2001 Wimbledon champion and the runner-up in '02 and '03, received such a disappointing seed. Davenport pointed out how, on the men's side, Andy Roddick was moved up to the No. 2 seed for the tournament even though he is the fifth-ranked player in the world.
"I think they definitely could have looked at it harder and made a little bit more of an effort in that case," Davenport said. "I don't understand the philosophy of, 'We're going to do this for the men, but we won't do it or the women.' As an American, it makes no sense."
Williams said the seed didn't disappoint her. Nor has she used it as motivation. "That's the talk of the fortnight, huh?" she said. "I was OK with it."
And at this point, it doesn't matter. What matters is finding a way to get past defending champion Maria Sharapova in Thursday's semifinal and in doing so, avenge little sister Serena's loss to Sharapova in last year's Wimbledon final.
Serena has not let the pain from that disappointment dissipate, taking every opportunity she has been given to reveal that she wasn't 100 percent that day and gave Sharapova the match. Thursday, after her victory over Pierce, another hard hitter, Venus agreed somewhat.
"Maria played well it takes a lot to win a Wimbledon final," Venus said. "But Serena wasn't able to put up a lot of resistance that day. If she could have played 10, 15 percent better, I think it would have been a different story."
Regardless of what happens against Sharapova, the second-ranked player in the world, just reaching the semifinals is quite an accomplishment for Venus, whom few experts gave much of a chance to advance this week. She hasn't won a title in more than a year and hasn't reached a Grand Slam semifinal since she lost to Serena in the final here in 2003.
Last year, she was improperly escorted out in the second round when an umpire miscalled the score and awarded a third-set tiebreaker to Williams' opponent when the match should have continued.
This year, each time the 25-year-old has stepped into a news conference, she has faced at least one question about being on the backside of her career. It would provide all the motivation any aging player would need if only Venus cared.
"I don't have anything to show at all," she said. "That's not even the way I think. I'm not out here trying to prove anything to anyone. If that were the case, then no, that's not even the way I live."
The way she does live is by staying logical, keeping her life grounded and watching "The Golden Girls." In fact, her biggest challenge for the rest of the week might be clicking off the remote and getting out of bed in time to meet her father for practice.
"I'm like a zombie," she said. "I can't wake up in the morning, but I hate to go to bed at night. And I need, like, eight hours' sleep.
"Sometimes I just don't get up. I just watch 'Golden Girls.'"
"The Golden Girls." How fitting.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.