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Steve Flink: Venus Falls Once More on the Dirt

5/29/2009 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

And so Venus Williams has suffered another early round defeat on the red clay of Roland Garros.  In her 13th consecutive appearance at the world’s premier clay court event dating back to 1997, Venus was ushered out of the tournament by the No. 29 seed Agnes Szavay 6-0, 6-4 in the third round. This is the third year in a row that Venus has bowed out in a third round meeting at Paris. It was yet another disappointing performance on a surface where she is most vulnerable, against an opponent who did not need to play terribly well to beat her, in a setting that has brought Venus more than her share of unhappiness across the years. Only once in her career has Venus advanced to the Roland Garros final, and that was seven long years ago when she was beaten by her sister Serena.                

What was unfortunate for Williams this year was that she had just come back a day before to finish a darkness delayed match against the cunning left-hander Lucie Safarova. In that match, Venus had to take the court on Thursday in the unenviable position of having lost the first set. She won the second set but was in a serious bind at 4-5, 0-30 in the final set. Safarova virtually had triple match point on her racket. The court was wide open for a forehand down the line winner. But Safarova self consciously drove the ball over the baseline. Nevertheless, despite clawing her way back to 30-30, Venus was down match point at 4-5, 30-40.                

Displaying the best that she has to offer on a clay court, Venus exploited a relatively short return from Safarova and nailed an immaculate backhand into the corner for a clean winner. She rallied gamely to close out that contest 6-7 (5),6-2, 7-5. I thought she might get a substantial confidence boost from emerging victorious in that hard fought battle with Safarova, but that was not the case. Competing for the third consecutive day in singles, perhaps slightly drained from the added responsibility of appearing in the doubles with her sister Serena, maybe burdened by too many unpleasant memories of her years of frequent frustration at Roland Garros, she came up awfully short against Szavay.                

To be sure, the conditions were not ideal for Williams. A tricky wind was blowing and disrupting her game in obvious ways. In sharp contrast, Szavay was handling the circumstances remarkably well. Although she had her moments of anxiety and her ball control was not necessarily at its customary high level, Szavay kept her shots inordinately deep in the crucial stages of the second set, and skillfully directed as many balls as possible when the stakes were greatest to the forehand side of Venus. All in all, Szavay, who was ranked a career high No. 13 in the world on April 14, 2008, played a first rate strategic match, and made the most of her opportunities.                

But the fact remains that Venus--- even allowing for her clay court deficiencies—did not do herself justice. She was unable to make any kind of impression in the first set and did not garner a game; that was the first time since a Fed Cup match against Nadia Petrova in 2007 that Venus had lost a set at love. On that occasion, however, Williams still managed to win the match. That could have been the case in this encounter with Szavay as well, but Venus squandered some nice openings in the second set.                

Had the soon to be 29-year-old American taken advantage of her chances in that second set against Szavay, she could well have moved on to record a three set victory. But she let herself down when she had the opportunity to seize control. Early in that second set, Venus had stood her ground admirably, saving break points on her way to 2-2 and 3-3. The angled backhand drop volley winner she played to save a break point in the sixth game was evidence of an ascendant Venus. She seemed to be gradually starting to believe, and she was taking control of more rallies and finally asserting herself.                

At 3-3, 30-30, Szavay looked fragile and beatable. She served a double fault, and then rolled a forehand almost feebly into the net. Williams was up a break, leading 4-3, reaching 40-30 on her serve. A third set appeared entirely possible. But unable to properly gauge the strength of the wind, Venus drove a routine two-hander long down the line. It was deuce. Szavay got a bit lucky on the next point, clipping the sideline with a forehand down the line, hitting an almost unintentional winner. At break point down, Williams double faulted.                

Not it was 4-4.  Serving at 30-30 in the critical ninth game, Szavay drove a backhand with excellent depth to lure Venus into a forehand mistake. At 40-30, Szavay directed her first serve wisely to the Williams forehand again, and Venus could not handle the return. Serving to save the match at 4-5, Venus reached 30-15 but never won another point. Szavay played a fine strategic point to reach 30-30, pulling Venus out of position with a sharply struck crosscourt backhand, closing in tight to put away a forehand volley.                

At 30-30, Szavay stuck with precisely the same game plan that had put her in a position to win. She played a solid return of serve and sent it to the forehand side of Williams, and Venus erred again. At 4-5, 30-40, match point down, Venus was out maneuvered, losing that last exchange by driving a two-handed backhand unnecessarily into the net. Szavay had come through 6-0, 6-4 against the No. 3 seed, and deservedly so. There is no escaping the judgment that Szavay’s performance was competent yet unexceptional. But, in the end, no matter how disappointing Venus was, Szavay got the job done.                

Now Venus Williams will leave this setback behind her, and turn her full attention towards capturing a sixth Wimbledon singles championship on the lawns of the All England Club. I am certain this loss will not get in her way as she pursues that high ambition. Consider what has happened in three of the previous four years. At Roland Garros in 2005, Venus was knocked out in the third round by the largely unheralded Bulgarian Sesil Karatantcheva, but then played one of the best matches of her career to win Wimbledon, saving a match point against Lindsay Davenport in a courageous 4-6, 7-6 (4) 9-7 victory.                

Two years later, in 2007, Williams lost again in the third round of Roland Garros in a hard fought, well played contest against Jelena Jankovic. At Wimbledon, Venus was back in sparkling form. The lowest seed  (at No. 23) ever to win the tournament, Williams included Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic among her victims. And then last year, the Italian Flavia Penetta cut down Williams in a straight set, third round collision at Roland Garros. How did Venus respond? She secured her fifth Wimbledon singles crown--- and third in a brilliant four year span--- overcoming her sister Serena 7-5, 6-3 in the championship match.                

This time around at “The Big W”, Venus Williams will surely be right in the thick of things once more.  I believe it could very well come down to another final round appointment between the Williams sisters in the championship match on Centre Court. I still believe Serena will win that tournament this year. She is long overdue, having not come through on the grass in Great Britain since she won her second title in 2003. But only a fool would disregard Venus Williams, who has demonstrated emphatically over the past decade that she is one of the greatest grass court players ever to play the sport of tennis.

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