Venus now leaning on experience

6/1/2006 - Tennis

PARIS -- This was Venus rising: A sweet, hopelessly gangly girl -- all arms and legs and transparent ambition -- beads flying on every furiously lashed shot. Wide-eyed and smiling, always smiling.

This is Venus waning: Now, 17 days shy of her 26th birthday, she suddenly finds herself at the other end of the spectrum. Through attrition and the inevitable passage of time, she has become the stoic veteran.

Her preeminent American contemporaries have fallen into disrepair: Jennifer Capriati seems to be retired for good, while Lindsay Davenport (back) and sister Serena (knee) are on the sidelines nursing injuries. Venus, singular from the beginning, is the last one standing.

She is ranked No. 13 in the world but is the only seeded American woman here at Roland Garros. The last time that happened in a Grand Slam? According to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, never in the Open era that began in 1968. Considering there are 32 seeded players in today's Grand Slams, that is even more telling.

When Williams finally took Court Philippe Chatrier for her second-round match Wednesday against Finland's Emma Laine, after three rain delays that consumed more than two hours, it was nearly 8 p.m. local time. It was cold and windy, and the stadium was virtually empty.

In what has become an increasingly familiar scene, Laine -- who entered the match with a 14-13 Grand Slam record -- came out banging. She took a 4-0 lead before Williams seemed to warm up. Venus rallied, prevailing in a tiebreak, and then made quick work in the second set, winning the match 7-6 (2), 6-2.

Venus, who reached the 2002 French Open final before losing to her sister, has a reasonably attractive draw. With her win over Laine -- Venus is now 30-2 in Grand Slam second-round matches -- she will face the winner of the Karolina Sprem-Shuai Peng match. Looking ahead, Venus would meet No. 7 seed Patty Schnyder in the quarterfinals and, with a victory, No. 1 seed Amelie Mauresmo in the semifinals.

There was a time, 1999-2003 to be precise, when the Williams sisters ruled tennis. They won an astonishing 10 Grand Slam singles titles in that glorious five-year run (do the math) and seemed capable of extending their reign indefinitely.

And then, the Williams sisters disappeared.

Serena suffered a serious knee injury and didn't play for eight months. Venus missed six months with an abdominal injury. They seemed to enjoy their time away from the game, pursuing acting, fashion and celebrity. They seemed to revel in the idea of being themselves. Their exuberance seemed to suggest that tennis had become less important.

In 2004, the sisters came up empty. They did not win a Grand Slam championship -- though Serena reached the final at Wimbledon only to lose to Maria Sharapova -- and the demise of the Williamses was celebrated in many quarters.

They were squandering their athletic gifts, the critics said, taking their eye off the ultimate ball.

And then, in 2005, the sisters answered emphatically, winning two of the season's majors: Serena took the Australian Open and Venus was the Wimbledon champion. Reports of their demise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, were premature.

And now, the drumbeat has begun again. Serena is missing in action here at Roland Garros, nursing a chronically tender knee, and Venus is looking anything but dominant. Sprained ligaments in her arm, wrist and elbow forced her to miss tournaments in Antwerp, Dubai and Miami. After losing in the first round of the Australian Open, she has played only 10 matches in three events.

"I think the hardest part for me at this time is a tournament would come and I'm fighting to play in it," she said. "Then I realize I can't. You're just not ready to go to the court. I felt so down, so I'd have to get up, try to go to the court, go to the gym -- do the things I needed to do.

"I'm not sure if [Serena is] experiencing that. For me, that's what I experienced," she said.

After her first-round win over Sybille Bammer, Venus was asked about the incessant criticism. She answered in typically Zen fashion.

"My thoughts are that life is good," she said. "I'm happy. I've been blessed with a great career. I have nothing to look back on with regret. I feel like I've learned from my losses, will hopefully learn from my wins.

"The whole thing is about staying healthy, pretty much. That's the name of the game for me," she said.

And for her sister, even more. Serena played three matches in the Australian Open, losing in the last to Daniela Hantuchova in straight sets. She hasn't played since and has already withdrawn from Wimbledon and will not return until her knee is fully functional, presumably sometime during the summer hard-court season.

After her first match, Venus was asked about Serena's status.

"What I will say is that never count a Williams sister out," she said. "I think everyone knows that at this point.

"Second is that, yes, I do know when she's coming back. Third is, I'm not telling," she said.

On the rare occasions she finds herself in match play, Venus' competitive instincts seem to return. Early in the match against Bammer, she rifled a forehand right at the Austrian's head; it would have hit her if she hadn't ducked.

"I don't think anyone wants to say, 'Yeah, I definitely want to play Venus Williams,'" Venus said. "I don't think that at all."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.