Don't discount Venus Williams quite yet
NEW YORK -- Venus Williams, in a rare 2011 sighting, was practicing here Saturday at the Billie Jean King national tennis center when her father sidled up to her.
"Venus," Richard Williams said, "you could win this thing."
Richard, who loves to tell stories, grinned as he remembered the moment Monday, deftly chewing a toothpick. And what was her response?
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"Oh, same as always," he said. "She just smiled. Didn't say a word."
Hard to believe, but Venus Williams is 31 years old. The cryptic, Mona Lisa smile her father described seems light years from the beaming flash of joy she unleashed when winning the U.S. Open a decade ago.
Venus, 21, beat sister Serena -- then 20 -- in the final for her second consecutive U.S. Open title. At the time, it looked like there might be a handful of championships for her, but Serena subsequently collected two titles -- and Venus has come up empty.
Her quest for a third title after a long layoff began Monday night against a 22-year-old Russian with a not-to-be-believed backstory. Vesna Dolonts came into the match never having won a U.S. Open match and only three in Grand Slam play. Her extraordinary journey to New York conspired to make the odds even longer.
Dolonts, a top-100 player, earned her way into the main draw, but until Friday she didn't have a proper visa. A powerful friend, she said, stepped in and helped her secure the proper documentation. With Hurricane Irene canceling flights from Moscow on Saturday and Sunday, she managed to get one of the last two tickets on Monday's direct flight to New York. It was in economy. After a 10-hour flight, she hurried to the site, arriving about 4 p.m., four hours before her first-round match.
She was hardly awed by the occasion. Dolonts split the first eight games of the match with Venus and played with poise and a degree of verve. Ultimately, though, Williams prevailed 6-4, 6-3. She is now a sparkling 51-3 in first-round matches at Grand Slams and has assembled an impressive streak of 20 straight.
"I didn't know what to expect," Venus said. "I didn't expect to be so sharp. Just trying to hit the ground running."
Venus' second-round match could well be far more difficult. She is likely to face Germany's Sabine Lisicki, a Wimbledon semifinalist. If Venus loses -- she is defending 900 points here -- she will fall out of the top 100 for the first time since 1996, when she was 16. And to think that she was ranked No. 2 in the world a year ago in May.
Although Serena's various travails and her one-year absence from the WTA circuit have created some captivating theater, Venus has been AWOL without exciting much comment.
After losing in the third round of the Australian Open to Andrea Petkovic, Venus missed six months with knee and hip injuries. She emerged, briefly, in England, losing to Daniela Hantuchova in the quarterfinals at Eastbourne and Tsvetana Pironkova in the fourth round at Wimbledon.
And then she missed the summer hard-court swing through North America with a viral infection. She declined to say what it was specifically but called it "energy-sucking," and added, "I couldn't play pro tennis."
She said she had practiced hitting the ball during the illness without moving and had been only properly practicing for about a week.
Venus comes to New York having played 10 matches in eight months. World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, for instance, has played 55 more matches. Still, if anyone can come hurtling out of the box, history says it's Venus. But, at her advanced age, is it realistic to expect another Grand Slam title?
It's been a dozen Slams since she last lifted a major trophy -- Wimbledon in 2008. Yet, she has performed well in New York, reaching the semifinals in two of the past four years. Her serve (she is sixth among WTA players in aces per match, with 5.4) keeps her in matches and she still covers the court reasonably well.
"She still has an unreal first step with those long legs," Richard said. "She's the fastest of the girls' players?"
"I watch a lot of TV," he said. "I know she's the fastest."
Against Dolonts, Venus began sluggishly, suffering an early break. She gradually sharpened her groundstrokes and closed out the first set with an aggressive forehand volley. She served well but finished the match with only one more winner (28) than errors (29).
Venus was asked if she had the conditioning base necessary to succeed here.
"I think I can do what it takes," she said. "I'm really happy to be back."
Historically, it is possible to win majors past the age of 31, but it is a rare feat. Pete Sampras (2002 U.S. Open) and Jimmy Connors (1983 U.S. Open) won at the age of 31 and Andre Agassi (2003 Australian Open) did it at 32. Martina Navratilova won at Wimbledon in 1990 at the age of 33.
"I really think she can win two or three more Grand Slams -- I do," Richard insisted. "But it's up to Venus. She has to want to do it."
But, does she really want to?
Richard shrugged and smiled that same Mona Lisa smile his daughter had given him on the practice court.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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