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A Fallen Champion
by Steve Flink

Will Venus ever seriously contend for a Grand Slam championship again?
Nowadays, with 32 players seeded in the men's and women's singles divisions at Grand Slam events, the third round has become the juncture when the better known competitors start colliding with each other. And so it was as Venus Williams took on the rapidly rising Jelena Jankovic at Roland Garros. Here was Venus, a five time major champion and a finalist at the 2002 French Open, facing a 22-year-old Serbian who is the most improved woman player of the past year. There was Venus, determined to reassert her authority, hoping to rekindle her old winning ways, anxious to make a statement that as she closes in on her 27th birthday she still can compete successfully in the upper reaches of her sport.
But Venus was thoroughly outplayed by a smarter and more resourceful clay court player, falling 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. From the outset, it was apparent that Jankovic was decidedly more solid and flexible from the baseline, mixing up the trajectory of her shots intelligently, making Williams play too many balls from up above her shoulders from deep positions. Jankovic understood the critical fact that on the red clay of Roland Garros you must not only launch an offense but also demonstrate that you know how to defend. Venus, as so often is the case, tried to persist with a strategy of total offense, looking almost entirely inept on defense.

The last rally of the match was in many ways symbolic of the entire contest. With Williams serving at 1-5, 15-40 in the third set, the two competitors had one of their finest rallies of the match, lasting 27 strokes. Time and again, Venus thought she was in charge of the rally, moving Jankovic from side to side, blasting away off both sides. Jankovic stood her ground admirably, using her slice forehand to great effect, forcing Williams to keep coming up with another sizzling shot. Finally, Venus went for the backhand down the line winner and missed.

From the outset, Venus was injuring herself with glaring unforced errors. Serving in the opening game of the match, she gave that important game away with four flagrant mistakes, all the product of poor shot selection. Jankovic exploited that opening fully, holding her serve all through that set, winning 20 of 24 points on her delivery, never facing a single break point. Venus raised her level slightly in the second set but was never allowed to get entirely comfortable. She needed three service breaks to get through that chapter, breaking Jankovic in the tenth game to make it back to one set all.

Williams managed to hold serve in the first game of the final set, but Jankovic swept six games in a row to close out the contest. Once more, Williams was pressing, going for too much with too little margin for error. After Jankovic raced to 3-1 by taking 12 of 16 points, Venus made her final stand. Serving in the fifth game, she saved a break point at 30-40 but double faulted meekly into the net and then was off the mark with yet another routine forehand crosscourt.

What is the moral of this story? Essentially, it is the tale of two top of the line players moving in opposite directions. Jankovic is now the No. 4 ranked woman in the world but she won't be satisfied until she reaches the top rung on the ladder. She is an ascendant figure, a match player of growing tactical acuity, a young woman who knows she has not yet reached her peak. Williams has almost surely left her greatest tennis in the past, although she could well perform with significantly more conviction when she gets back on the grass at Wimbledon and then shifts to the U.S. Open Series on hard courts.

But it has been a long time since she was a dominant player. Williams won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back to back in 2000 and 2001 with overwhelming power and tenacity. She carried herself at that time like a woman who felt she had the world at her feet. The thought of losing at those majors seldom seemed to cross her mind. Thereafter, she was overtaken by her more gifted and versatile sister Serena, who stopped Venus in five Grand Slam finals. In the last three majors of 2002, Venus always finished second behind Serena, and that pattern repeated itself in two of the first three Grand Slam events of 2003.

Venus was never really the same player after that string of defeats. But after a dismal third round loss at Roland Garros in 2005, Williams made a stupendous recovery to capture her third Wimbledon singles title a month later, saving a match point in a stirring final round win over Lindsay Davenport. That spirited response two years ago is proof that Venus Williams is remarkably resilient. But the fact remains that Williams was the No. 11 seed at Roland Garros two years ago when she made her third round exit. This year, she was seeded No. 26. Those numbers are revealing.

To completely write off a player of her stature would be foolish. Nevertheless, the guess here is that Venus will never seriously contend for a Grand Slam singles championship again.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com. He will be reporting regularly from Roland Garros.

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