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Steve Flink: Venus Williams front and center

1/16/2013 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

If it seems as if Venus Williams has been around forever as a prominent tennis player, that’s because essentially she has. She came upon us as an effervescent 14-year-old way back in the autumn of 1994, turning professional on the last day of October that year in Oakland, giving the renowned Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario a scare before falling in three sets. The eupeptic Spaniard was the holder then of the French and U.S. Open titles and she finished that year at No. 2 in the world behind none other than Steffi Graf.

In any event, Williams was clearly a powerhouse in her sport, a prodigy on her way to becoming a champion. By 1997, she was in the forefront of tennis, reaching her first major singles final at the U.S. Open before succumbing to the tactical acuity and masterful ball control of Martina Hingis. Venus broke into the top five in the world in 1998, climbed to No. 3 the following year, and then celebrated a pair of sterling seasons. In 2000 and 2001, she was unbeaten at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, claiming the game’s two most prestigious titles back to back convincingly. She even made it briefly to the lofty territory of No. 1 in the world. That was no mean feat.

Thereafter, Venus was overtaken by her younger sister as the game’s finest big occasion player. In five Grand Slam tournament finals in a memorable span of six majors during 2002 and 2003, Venus was the runner-up to Serena. From 2004-2006, Venus did not prosper much, but in 2007 and 2008 she reclaimed some of her old authority, winning her fourth and fifth Wimbledon singles championships, halting Serena in the latter of those finals.

Venus remained a player of enduring importance, concluding 2009 at No. 6 in the world, finishing 2010 at No. 5. But her game and, more importantly, her health deteriorated. The low point for her was surely at the 2011 United States Open, when she defaulted in the second round, announcing she was suffering from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease. She fell to No. 103 in the world at the end of that year, but made a comeback of significance back to No. 24 in 2012 despite failing to advance beyond the second round of the three Grand Slam events she played.

And yet, despite all of her woes, regardless of the many obstacles she has faced, no matter what the mounting size of her challenges, Venus Williams has refused to give up. She walks on court for nearly every match she plays these days with no reservations, delighted to be still out there in the big arenas competing, realizing that the game remains her ultimate fascination. Last night, Venus overcame deficits in both sets to defeat the Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet 6-3, 6-3 in the second round of the first 2013 major. With that win, she earned a highly anticipated appointment with her old rival Maria Sharapova. Their third round meeting should be gripping in many ways. It is a match the tournament needs, a battle of established champions, an encounter between a seven time Grand Slam singles victor in Venus and a career Grand Slammer in Sharapova.

Sharapova, of course, will be the clear favorite. She is the world’s second ranked player, and the 25-year-old Russian has commenced this tournament impeccably, casting aside Olga Puchkova and Misaki Doi without the loss of a game. No woman had recorded back to back 6-0, 6-0 wins in the first and second rounds of a major since the Australian Wendy Turnbull realized that feat in 1985. To be sure, Sharapova thoroughly outclassed her two overwhelmed adversaries, and was never given much of a test in either confrontation. The fact remains that Sharapova will head into her contest with Williams not only confident but also well rested. That must be a relief for the Russian after approaching the tournament nursing a collarbone injury.

As for Williams, she will need to elevate her game decidedly from the form she displayed against Cornet. Her performance in that match was uneven, but she did recover impressively in both sets. Venus seemed apprehensive at the outset. She twice double faulted into the net in the second game of the match, and lost her serve to fall behind 2-0. But quickly Williams found her range. Propelled by a superb backhand down the line passing shot at 30-30 in the third game, Venus broke back, held at love, and broke again at 15 for 3-2. In that fifth game, Venus produced an exemplary crosscourt forehand volley winner and a neatly executed backhand down the line drop shot winner. She had won 12 of 15 points and three games in a row, breaking twice in that stretch.

Venus saved a break point on her way to 4-2 before Cornet held on in the seventh game. But Williams swiftly reasserted herself, holding at 15 and breaking Cornet in the ninth game on a double fault from the beleaguered Frenchwoman. In the fifth game of the second set, Venus served consecutive double faults into the net again and was broken at love. But she calmly pulled out of that predicament, sweeping four games in a row to run out the triumph. The 6-3, 6-3 scoreline was a bit misleading because Williams had to fight from behind to prevail in each of those sets, but overall she acquitted herself well and the state of her game was reasonably good.

Williams reminded us in the process of claiming this victory that she is far more comfortable at the net than her prodigious little sister has ever been. Her conventional “punch” volley is first rate. Her low forehand volley can be remarkably good. She plays that shot with authority, executes it confidently, and takes command whenever she ventures forward toward the net. Although her second serve remains problematic, it is not as large a liability as it once was. And her forehand is also more reliable than it was in the old days. So Venus Williams can take many positives with her into this appealing third round contest against Sharapova.

For the 32-year-old American, this is an opportunity to register one of her biggest wins in years over a formidable opponent, but it will be a demanding and arduous assignment. Sharapova holds a 4-3 career edge over Williams, although Venus won their only Grand Slam tournament collisions at Wimbledon in 2005 and 2007. A win at this stage would be a considerable bonus for Williams, and could reignite her career in some ways. But, win or lose against Sharapova, the ongoing dilemma for Williams will be stringing together seven winning performances at the majors over the course of a fortnight. Way back when, getting on a roll and gathering strength over a two week stretch at a Grand Slam event was a familiar routine for Venus, but these days the challenge of that endeavor is much greater and far more difficult. She may not have the stamina to stand up to those rigors anymore—but, then again, perhaps fleetingly she does.

Be that as it may, no matter how this Australian Open unfolds for her, Venus Williams is winning in many ways just by showing up.

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.