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Venus Rising

By Steve Flink

It's been ages since Venus Williams has played with the gusto, controlled aggression and panache she exhibited in her Centre Court triumph over Maria Sharapova. I'm not sure she has ever played better tennis in her entire career. Venus had lost three of her four previous career clashes against the No. 2 seed, but took over Centre Court on the fourth of July like a transformed player, crushing a disconsolate Sharapova 6-1, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals. It was astonishing to watch the No. 23 seed Venus play such an excellent match after being pushed to her limits twice in this event. In the process of recording this rousing triumph, Venus demonstrated persuasively that she is not through making her mark in the upper echelons of the game.

Was this the same woman who was extended to 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 by Alla Kudryavtseva in the opening round, the same player who was trailing 3-5 in the final set in the third round against Akiko Morigami? Clearly not. Venus approached her meeting with Sharapova as if it was a final. Her entire demeanor was radically altered. Her ball striking was of a decidedly higher caliber. Her crackling intensity was unmistakable. From start to finish, she wore an imperious expression in her collision with Sharapova that was reminiscent of the Venus who won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001.

Consider some of the cold yet enlightening statistics. She did not lose her serve in the match, never faced a break point, and kept such constant pressure on her Russian adversary that she reached break point no fewer than 19 times. Venus squandered 15 of those 19 opportunities. But she kept pressing on, refusing to look back, playing every point with undivided attention. The truth of the matter is that Sharapova gave this contest everything she had but was stifled by the astonishing velocity of her opponent’s shots. Two years ago, when Sharapova was the defending champion and many experts looked for her to win Wimbledon again, Venus toppled her in the semifinals and then went on to halt Lindsay Davenport from match point down in an epic final. Remarkably, Sharapova fell short against Venus again on the biggest stage in the sport.

Venus at her best drives her service returns with astonishing velocity, but in this skirmish her sustained depth off the ground was astounding. To be sure, Sharapova was apprehensive and uncertain in the wind, and her forehand let her down badly. But that was understandable under the circumstances. The forehand is also the make or break stroke for Williams, and against Sharapova her ball control off that side was better than I have ever seen it. Time and again she moved well inside the baseline on returns and during rallies, and yet she missed so rarely. She found her range completely, and that left Sharapova with nothing to exploit.

All in all, it was a great day for the Americans on this celebratory day of independence. Andy Roddick joined Venus Williams in the quarterfinals by completing a straight set triumph over Paul Henri Mathieu, finishing off that match by recouping from 0-5 down to win his 18th consecutive tie-break. Roddick thus approached his battle in the last eight against Richard Gasquet with optimism and confidence. For the two-time former Wimbledon finalist, July 4th was everything he could have wanted it to be.

That was not the case for Serena Williams. With her left leg still heavily taped following the severe calf strain injury she suffered during her fourth round win over Daniela Hantuchova, Serena took on Justine Henin on a windswept Centre Court. She competed well, and played some good tactical tennis. Most notably, she used her sliced backhand effectively to make Henin dig out some arduous running low forehands. That play worked frequently. Furthermore, Serena served well in patches. She did an admirable job to send the match to a third set, but she could do no more.
Henin is the ultimate professional now in the women’s game, a champion who pursues every major at full force, a woman who understands for the first time just how good she can be. She raced to a 5-1 final set lead and then held off a typically defiant Serena after the American took the next two games. Maintaining her composure, she came through 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in the quarterfinals to topple her revered rival for the fifth time in eleven career meetings. But all four of her previous triumphs over Serena were on clay, so this grass court victory was a milestone for her.
Henin deserves full marks for holding back Serena. But on this July Fourth at Wimbledon, at a time when most knowledgeable observers were beginning to give up on her, in a setting that has so often brought out the best in her, Venus Williams turned a holiday into a brilliant showcase for her enduring greatness.

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