- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England — Reports of Venus Williams’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Of course, that isn’t saying much when the primary exaggerator in question is Daddy Strangelove himself, Richard Williams, chief proprietor of Homegirls.com and a man who once claimed he was in negotiations to purchase the lucrative rights to Indian airspace.

Still, with her gritty, pain-defying victory over Belgian waffler Kim Clijsters in the Wimbledon semifinals, Venus served notice — along with a few aces — that she has no intention of slipping gently into the good night of fashion design and planned book of unpublished poetry.

Which is probably a wise choice, if previous poetic offerings from the likes of Jewel and Jimmy Carter are any indication.

Even with her nagging abdominal strain, Venus seems to have her mojo back. And no matter the outcome of today’s Wimbledon final against younger sis Serena — who likely will collect a sixth Slam before jetting back to the States for an acting gig — a resurgent Venus bodes well for tennis. And for Venus.

Recall that as little as two weeks ago, serious (well, semiserious) doubts surrounded not only Venus’ will to fight but also her will to continue in the sport.

Surpassed by Serena in four consecutive Grand Slam finals, Venus appeared increasingly conflicted: unhappy at finishing second, equally distressed at the prospect of having to meet — and defeat — her beloved little sister on the sport’s biggest stages.

Though Venus would never admit to emotional turmoil, her play told another story. Consider last year’s U.S. Open final, where her usually impassive expression was replaced by worried, anguished eyes. Shoulders slumped, rushing points and yanking her normally fearsome first serve into the tape, she looked like a woman with somewhere else to be — namely, anywhere but Flushing Meadows. Not that we can really blame her. But still.

After losing to Serena in the Australian Open final in January, Venus played in only four tournaments before Wimbledon and slipped to No.4 in the rankings. Her sore stomach didn’t help, forcing her to retire in the finals of a tournament in Warsaw and contributing to her disheartening upset by Russia’s Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round at the French Open.

When Venus arrived in London, she seemed more interested in discussing her self-designed corset dress than in talking tennis. Meanwhile, Richard Williams suggested that Venus had grown complacent.

“If I had the chance to, I would get [Venus and Serena] out of tennis right away,” he added. “I tried to get Venus to stop playing tennis when she was 9 years old.

“It’s time for someone else to come along and carry the torch, and it’s time for them to move on and set more goals in business. I would think that at 25 or 26, no later than 27, it’s be time for them to move on.”

Did Venus feel the same way? Sensing blood in the water, tennis pundits opined that Venus had lost her Sampras-like aura of invincibility. Some suggested that the Belgian duo of Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne has permanently surpassed her; others predicted that Williams would again fall to Zvonareva in the tournament’s fourth round, a heretofore ludicrous proposition.

The truth, though, is that Venus has long been at home on Centre Court’s pristine lawns. Three years ago, she won her first major title here, a victory that propelled her to a trio of additional Slams and a place at the top of the rankings.

Fittingly, then, Venus cruised through the early rounds of the tournament before spanking the supposedly dangerous Zvonareva in their French Open rematch, so flummoxing the 20-year-old Russian that she was left talking to the ball between points. Afterward, Venus dismissed her father’s blathering, while Richard changed his tune and told the BBC that “if Venus decides to play, I don’t think anyone can touch her.”

Said Venus: “[Im] definitely not complacent. I have to find the right balance of just confidence and staying calm and executing.”

Those words proved prophetic. Down an early break to Clijsters in the semifinals, knowing that Serena already had advanced, Venus reached up for a serve — and came down in agony. She served out the game, then ducked into the locker room for a examination by WTA trainer Karen Davis. Returning in a panic, Venus quickly lost the set, her serve and strokes suddenly pedestrian.

“More than playing bad, more than maybe the pain, I just couldn’t calm down,” Venus said. “I think that, more than anything, lost me the first set. I didn’t really want to accept that this was happening again, that I was probably going to have to play in pain.”

A subsequent rain delay allowed Venus to beat a second locker room retreat — and this time, resolve set in. Taught to never play in pain, Venus was faced with a difficult choice.

“I generally retire immediately,” she said. “My parents always told us to put the racket in the bag, go off the court. I just felt this time — I just wanted to win.

“I never retired out of a Grand Slam match and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Obviously, if I got to the point where I really was just feeling horrible, I would hang up the racket. I’m not a fool. But I felt that I could try.”

Buoyed by a pep talk from mother Oracene Price and Serena, Venus did more than try. Her midsection wrapped in tape, she came back a different player. Tentative serves gave way to bombs; stiff half-swings became wince-inducing overhead smashes.

By the third set, Venus was in total command — overcome with adrenaline, screaming with every baseline blast, running her Belgian opponent ragged.

“In the end, it’s about performing at that moment and playing better than whoever you’re playing,” Venus said. “Rising to the occasion.”

Clijsters never had a chance. And so long as Venus’ mojo continues to rise, neither does anyone else. Except, of course, Serena who figures to duke it out with her still-formidable older sis in many Wimbledon finals to come.

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