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Steve Flink: Venus Ousted

1/22/2009 10:58:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The first four days in the opening major event of 2009 were moving along predictably. All of the big name players were flourishing in the men's and women's draws. No one looked particularly vulnerable. The tennis was first class, but the outcomes of the matches played by the top seeded competitors were not terribly hard to project.

But then Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain went out onto Rod Laver Arena and startled the tennis world by toppling No. 6 seed and seven times Grand Slam tournament champion Venus Williams 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 in a second round match played out dramatically under the lights. The 28-year-old American--- five times a victor on the lawns of Wimbledon, twice the champion of her country at the U.S. Open--- was simply outplayed in the end by a player ranked No. 46 in the world. And yet, it was not as if Venus did not have more than her share of opportunities, most notably when she advanced to a 5-2, final set lead.

Williams won the first set comfortably, and seemed on her way to a routine straight sets triumph. Her troubles began early in the second set. Serving at 0-1, 30-40, she double faulted that game away, and that gift was well received by the free-wheeling 20-year-old who stood across the net. Suarez Navarro is very impressive off the ground. Her one-handed backhand is reminiscent in many ways of Justine Henin. When she releases that shot with topspin, it is a majestic stroke. She creates extraordinary angles with that shot to open up the court, and gets excellent depth whenever she needs it.

Moreover, Suarez Navarro can slice that backhand adroitly, and her well disguised topspin forehand kept Williams at bay for large stretches in this contest. Navarro moved to 3-0 in that second set and then made it to 4-2. But when Venus broke back in the seventh game, she seemed to have found her range again off her frequently vulnerable forehand. Williams served at 3-4, 40-30, and had she taken that point she would have put herself in a strong position to win in straight sets. But she misfired on a forehand down the line, then double faulted, and was broken when Suarez Navarro crushed a topspin backhand down the line for a clean winner. Williams was wounded deeply by the loss of that crucial game.

Suarez Navarro held on to seal that set, but soon Venus was ascendant again. Williams broke her adversary for a 3-1, third set lead and held two more times to reach 5-2. Suarez Navarro held at love for 3-5, but Venus served for the match in the ninth game. She connected with only two of five first serves and was on her heels that entire game. The assertive Spaniard broke at 15 for 4-5, but still Venus had a chance to close it out. With the Spaniard serving at 4-5, 30-40, Williams had her one and only match point. Suarez Navarro threw in a routine kicker instead of going for her first serve, and Venus bungled a backhand return long. Williams was as jittery as she can get, making two more unforced errors on the return as Suarez Navarro held on for 5-5.

At 5-5, the growing anxiety of the American was unmistakable. She double faulted to go down 0-30 and made three more unforced errors off the ground. Suarez Navarro thus broke at 15 for 6-5, and served out the match in the following game. Williams departed uncharacteristically, wasting a huge chance in the third set, allowing her match point opportunity to slip needlessly from her grasp, failing to exploit the big edge in experience she had over her opponent.

Over the years at the Grand Slam events, what stands out to me about Venus Williams is her capacity to fight back grittily and save herself time and again from serious deficits. To cite just a few examples of her resilience and grace under pressure, Williams was behind 5-3 in the third set against Martina Hingis at the 2000 U.S. Open in the semifinals, but captured four games in a row to register a great triumph. At Wimbledon in 2005 against Lindsay Davenport in the final, she rallied from match point down to win a classic Centre Court encounter.

Williams can be a terrific front runner, but she got in her own way on this occasion and lost a match she surely should have won. And so her woes at the Australian Open keep reoccurring. This was her tenth visit to the land “Down Under” for the first major of the year, and her best showing was making it to the final in 2003. She lost that match 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 to her sister Serena. I felt she performed quite well on that occasion, and the loss was as much a mental setback as anything technical or tactical. Keep in mind that Venus had also bowed against Serena in the finals of the 2002 French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. So Serena completed a fourth straight Grand Slam championship victory for a so-called “Serena Slam”, and Venus was her victim in each and every one of those finals.

That 2003 appearance marked the fifth time Williams had played the Australian Open. In her previous four trips to that event, she was not successful but was remarkably consistent, reaching three quarterfinals and a semifinal. But in her last five appearances, she has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals. Considering that she has won Wimbledon three of the past four years, what is holding her back in Australia?

The question is not easy to answer. I believe it can partially be explained by the timing of the tournament. It is a tough challenge for a leading player to lift her game to a level of peak efficiency so early in the year. But the fact remains that Venus has not always been badly prepared for the Australian Open, and she surely gave herself time to get acclimated this year. On top of that, she had won the 2008 Sony Ericsson Championships at Qatar last November, boosting the hopes of her many admirers that she might well come roaring into 2009 not only ready but able to play her best big tournament tennis.

It was not to be. The skeptics also ask why she has not won the U.S. Open---- the other major hard court major---since 2001. In the final analysis, my belief is that she simply loves the grass courts of Wimbledon more than any other place or surface in the world. Her first serve--- the biggest if not the best in the women's game--- is that much harder to break on the lawns at the All England Club. Her second serve--- always a weakness--- is harder to attack. Her forehand is less of a liability since she doesn't have to hit as many balls. So she has made the most of her chances at Wimbledon, while that has not been the case at the other Grand Slam events.

The hard courts over the last few years in Melbourne have been slower, and that has not helped Williams in the least. Watching her against Suarez Navarro in this stunning loss, she seemed to have an inordinate amount of difficulty creating the necessary openings to hit winners or at least provoke mistakes. She kept pounding away relentlessly, but could not find a way to consistently overpower an obstinate adversary who was not willing to surrender even when her outlook seemed so bleak in the final set.

Let's face it: Venus Williams has been around for a remarkably long time. She turned pro in October of 1994, won her first WTA Tour title in 1998, captured her first major in 2000. After all that time, after encountering new waves of up and coming players every three to four years, after putting herself on the line so frequently and forthrightly, after enduring at a high level for so long, Williams has suffered another cruel blow to her pride.

She surely thought she would make a serious run for this Australian Open title, and perhaps believed in her heart that she would win the tournament. But to write her off now would be misguided. She will not win at Roland Garros, where she has reached the final only once but has never prevailed. But she will be in the thick of things again at Wimbledon, and has the capacity to do well at the U.S. Open.

If history is any guide, Venus Williams won't dwell on her Melbourne missed opportunity for long. She will get on with her business, keep plugging away for the next couple of years, and maybe, just maybe, come away with another top honor somewhere along the line.

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