Venus Sets Sights on Sixth Wimbledon Win
Long before Venus Williams made Wimbledon's closely cropped grass her personal playground, she had an inkling it was the place where she might solidify her place in tennis history.
That feeling was articulated when her father asked the spindly 9-year-old what tournament she wanted to win most.
"I picked Wimbledon," Williams recalls. "I guess that's how it all started."
Two decades later, Williams is the embodiment of her childhood aspirations, having become the pre-eminent grass-court player of her generation.
Wimbledon begins Monday, and the two-time defending champ and No. 3 seed is favored to pick up a sixth singles title (2000-01, 2005, 2007-08), a victory that would tie her with another California-bred trailblazer, Billie Jean King.
"It's just nice to be in good company," says Williams, who refuses to engage in debates about where she stands in history or how many All England Club crowns she might win. "I never compare myself to anyone."
Despite Williams' early inclinations, her hegemony in London was hardly predictable.
The right-hander with the percussive groundstrokes honed her potent game on Southern California cement. Two years into her dominant run of 2000-01 - when she reached No. 1 and won back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles - Williams owned as many hardcourt majors as Wimbledon championships. Six years later, those two U.S. Open titles surprisingly remain her only Grand Slam tournament wins away from grass.
Wimbledon, which many people still consider tennis' most prestigious trophy, has been her special province.
"When she talks about Wimbledon, the tenor of her voice changes," says King, who developed the same ownership feeling when she ruled London's grass in the 1960s and 1970s. "It connects with her. She's won so much, that feeling continues to grow. This is her place."
Indeed, Williams' 89.2 percent winning percentage (58-7) at the All England Club trails only Steffi Graf (90.4 percent, seven singles titles) and Martina Navratilova (89.6 percent, record nine singles titles) in the Open era (starting in 1968).
"It's an attitude thing," says Williams, who turned 29 on Wednesday. "It's not even conscious. I get there, and the gear goes where it's supposed to go."
Surface suits her game
Williams' prowess on grass is a product of nature and nurture. The pipe-stick girl who dreamed of playing in front of British royalty grew tall, powerful and swift - the perfect set of skills for the tournament she coveted.
Despite her 6-1 frame, Williams stays low to the ground and is one of the best movers on tour, a skill accentuated on grass by excellent footwork, racket preparation and large wingspan.
Her serve - once tracked at a women's record 129 mph - is hard and flat and arrives laced with slice, an effective spin on grass because it veers away from an opponent in the deuce court. And Williams has developed into one of the best volleyers on tour.
Although she can stay in extended rallies with spirit-breaking defense, grass brings out her natural aggressive instincts and plays into her first-strike ability.
"I think the surface really suits to her game, because she doesn't like to play long rallies," fourth-ranked Russian Elena Dementieva said after losing to Williams in last year's Wimbledon semifinals.
She usually arrives fresh - she and sister Serena have eschewed grass-court tuneup events for years, instead staying home in Florida to practice on cement. She stays in a flat in Wimbledon village - sharing it with Serena - within easy walking distance to the club. That is particularly beneficial during long rain delays, says Williams, who calls it a homey atmosphere.
For a player so respectful of tradition and who prefers orderliness in life, Wimbledon's button-down approach is a perfect fit.
"It suits her," former star Pam Shriver says.
Familiarity breeds added self-belief. Commentator Tracy Austin says players often conjure up a certain comfort level when they have won an event repeatedly.
"She has the memories that give you an extra confidence boost," says Austin, a two-time U.S. Open winner.
Leader off court
Venus, the more reserved and protective sibling, has elevated her presence beyond the court.
She has served on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour council for a decade and has been an advocate for gender equality and women's rights. When Wimbledon became the last major to award equal prize money in 2007, Williams was there fittingly to lap up the winnings. "I couldn't have planned it any better," Williams says, laughing.
King, who has known Williams since she was barely a teen and captained her in Fed Cup in the late 1990s until 2003, says she didn't necessarily see leadership qualities but marvels at how they have blossomed.
"That was a wonderful surprise," says King, who is tied with Navratilova with 20 Wimbledon titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. "Most athletes don't want to put themselves on the line for anything. For her generation, that was very brave."
Throughout Williams' five Wimbledon singles wins, she has shown a knack for surviving pressure-packed encounters and jettisoned early-round unevenness for finish-line efficiency - what Austin calls "playing her way through Grand Slams."
In 2005, Williams faced two match points with outright winners vs. Lindsay Davenport in the final, winning 9-7 in the third set. Two years ago, Williams fought off deficits in two of her first three rounds, winning both 7-5 in the third before blitzing through the field without dropping a set in the remaining four matches.
"I consider myself a big-point player and a high-pressure player," she says.
Part of that is learning to put disappointments quickly behind her, such as frustrations in the French Open at Roland Garros, where she has lost in the third round four of the last five years. Her history at Wimbledon likewise serves as a healing balm.
"When I have a bad or a tough loss, Serena tells me, "You're a five-time Wimbledon champion,' and that makes it all better," Williams says.
This year, Williams arrives with two titles and the No. 3 ranking, which means the earliest she can run into No. 2 Serena is the semifinals. Four women have won Open-era Wimbledon titles past their third decade - Ann Jones (1969), King ('75), Virginia Wade ('77) and Navratilova ('87, '90), but if Williams feels any urgency or pressure, she says she's learned to keep it at bay.
"I'm wise enough now not to do that," she says. "If I'm No. 3, I deserve to be there. I love having the privilege of being the two-time defending champion. Who wouldn't want that honor? No pressure - that is just glory!"
Besides Serena, others will be stalking her title, notably No. 1 Dinara Safina, French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2004 winner Maria Sharapova, who recently came back from an eight-month layoff because of a right shoulder injury.
Observers say Williams easily could win two or three more Wimbledon crowns.
"I expect her to win six and keep on winning," King says.