Commentary

Plight of Venus Williams continues

Updated: June 20, 2013, 9:44 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

She was born 33 years ago in California, but nearly a century earlier, the Wimbledon ladies' trophy was created in her name.

Appropriately, Venus Ebony Starr Williams would win the Venus Rosewater Dish at the All England Club five times in the first nine years of this millennium.

Her younger sister, Serena, is the No. 1-ranked player in the world and the overwhelming favorite to defend her title here. But, for another fortnight, at least, they each have a handful of Wimbledon singles titles.

When she was just a kid -- 8 or 9 -- Venus told her father Richard she wanted to win Wimbledon.

[+] EnlargeVenus Williams
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesIts almost hard to remember, but Venus Williams was once considered the best grass-court player of her generation.
"She knew it even then," Richard told me five years ago when Venus was on her way to her fifth championship.

There will be no more Wimbledon titles for Venus Williams this year.

She pulled out of this year's championships with -- and anyone over 40 will appreciate this -- a bad back. She's also fighting Sjogren's syndrome, a chronic auto-immune disorder that prevents her from training properly. She hopes to be back, she said on her Facebook page, a day after the men's final playing World Team Tennis in Washington, D.C.

But, the questions begs itself: Will she be back at Wimbledon?

Venus has won 10 of her 15 WTA-level matches this year and banked more than $200,000 in prize money -- numbers that anyone sitting below her No. 34 ranking would take in a heartbeat. But since reaching the semifinals at Charleston (losing there to Serena), Venus has lost her past three matches, in Fed Cup, in Rome and at the French Open.

Asked whether it was her final appearance at Roland Garros, Venus said, "I'll let you know."

Five years ago, Venus beat her younger sister in that 2008 final. Today, that doesn't seem remotely possible.

At the time, you could argue that she was among the very best women ever to play on grass. Martina Navratilova's nine titles at Wimbledon are the best of the Open era, followed by Steffi Graf (seven) and Billie Jean King (six). Venus and Serena are next in line.

That would make Venus and her sister the finest grass players of their generation.

"She's one of the all-time greats on the surface, no question about it," Navratilova said of Venus five years ago. "Venus is better adaptable to the grass [than Serena]; she has better volley technique, and she covers the net better."

At 6-foot-1 (Lindsay Davenport swears she's closer to 6-3), Venus was -- we will use the past tense -- built for the grass game; five of her seven career Grand Slam singles titles came at Wimbledon. Her serve was powerful, and her wingspan was enormous. And, as Navratilova pointed out, she had a willingness to move forward, with sometimes startling acceleration, and finish points at net.

"I'm aggressive, so that helps a ton," Venus said back then. "The ball's going to go through the court if you're moving forward."

Said Navratilova, "She's just so big at the net. She takes one step, and her reach -- if we went from a neutral point and I take one step and I reach and she takes one step, she's probably got this much [holding hands about two feet apart] on me.

"And that's huge on grass, because oftentimes you only have time for that one step, and where I would not even be getting to the ball, she would hit a good defensive shot. And when I would be hitting a defensive shot, she hits an offensive shot."

At first, playing on grass was not a natural thing for Venus, who grew up on hard courts. Her first match at Wimbledon, as a 17-year-old in 1997, was a disaster. She won the first set against Magdalena Grzybowska of Poland, then lost in a flurry of unforced errors. A year later, Venus got to the quarterfinals.

"She realized that her game was well-suited to grass," explained ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, who won 21 Grand Slam doubles titles. "She started taking people out wide on her serve to open up the court. She started using her reach in coming to net and volleying. She's even started shortening up her return swing.

"Grass works for her because she doesn't like long rallies. On other surfaces, you may need five, six, seven strokes to win a point. Here, she can get out of a point with two, three strokes, so her forehand has less of a chance to break down."

That was five years ago.

Last year, she lost here in the first round, her earliest Grand Slam exit in six years. This was the beginning of the report I filed that day in late June:

Surely, this is not the way Venus Williams wants to go out:

She walked slowly to the net, her head down, summoning the strength to force a broader-than-necessary smile. She politely shook the hand of Elena Vesnina -- a useful but unremarkable Russian player ranked No. 79 in the world -- and started gathering her things. She waved to the respectful Court 2 crowd, first with her left hand and then her right. Then she disappeared through the exit.

For good?

Hard to say. Hard to watch, when you remember her at the top of her game. And, if you're Venus, hard to live with this level of performance.

She'll let us know.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.