Sunday, December 28
More aggressive style may be in order

ESPN.com

For Venus Williams, it comes down to commitment and confidence.

Commitment, in this sense, is not about off-court distractions. It's about being aggressive on the court -- and the belief that taking a risk will work.

Serena and Venus Williams
Serena, left, has gotten the better of her sister Venus recently.

"She's got to go to net more with that wingspan," Billie Jean King said at the Fed Cup in April. "She's a 21st-century Althea Gibson. It's exactly what Althea used to do is blanket the net. That's what Venus should be doing. She's incredible. She's got a really good volley. ... She's got to do it to be the best she can be."

While the rest of the women's tennis tour has worked to step up their games to reach the standard that sister Serena has set, Venus is no longer playing at her best. At the French Open, Venus fell in the quarterfinals with 12 double faults and 75 unforced errors. It was a flashback to how she played in 1999, when she lost in two quarterfinals, a fourth round and one semifinal (at the U.S. Open) in the majors.

Since then, she's won four Grand Slam titles and has been in the finals of three others in 12 tries. But there's hope. Venus' best chance to once again compete with her sister is at Wimbledon. Her game is especially suited to the serve-volley game of grass. When she's at the net, she can stretch out her arm and literally have half the court covered. It's a huge advantage.

If she remembers to use it.

"I think I should have played smarter," Venus said after losing in Paris. "Looking back, I maybe could have come into the net more, like if I had a lot of floaters, things like that.

"I don't think I was thinking about coming in," she said. "That's bad. I don't really even think I was."

That's not what Fed Cup captain King wants to hear. King and Fed Cup coach Zina Garrison worked hard with Venus -- and Serena -- on making the commitment to come to net in Lowell, Mass., in April.

"I am on Venus, and Zina is on Venus so bad," King said. "With that wingspan, we're going: 'Hello? Are you going to serve-volley because if you don't serve-volley you're kidding yourself. That would make you the best if you go up (to net). Like the best you can be.'"

Venus is struggling to find her best these days. She's dropped to fourth in the world rankings. She hasn't won a title since February. She hasn't won a Grand Slam final since 2001, despite being runner-up in four of the past five.

"I feel like I'm going forward," Venus said. "I always feel like I'm going forward. I feel like there isn't always a time where things can be a hundred percent. And for a couple of years, I had a hundred percent a lot of the times. But when you lose and when you have tougher times, it makes you stronger and moving forward.

"And I still feel that I'm doing those things."

King says Venus is comfortable coming to the net, but doesn't out of habit.

"It's really a mind-set," King said. "It's also being able to take a risk and making the commitment early."

But does Venus have the mind-set she needs to win? Venus' demeanor on court has never been as flamboyant as her sister, but lately she seems to be going through the motions. It's apparant on the court and even in the difference in how each reacted to losing at the French Open. Venus answered questions calmly and flatly answered while Serena, who, granted, had more at stake, broke into tears. That fire is missing in Venus.

SLAM DUNKED
How Serena and Venus Williams have fared in the last 13 Grand Slam events:
Event Serena Venus
Aussie '00 4R DNP
French '00 DNP QF
Wimbledon '00 SF Win
U.S. Open '00 QF Win
Aussie '01 QF SF
French '01 QF 1R
Wimbledon '01 QF Win
U.S. Open '01 F Win
Aussie '02 DNP QF
French '02 Win F
Wimbledon '02 Win F
U.S. Open '02 Win F
Aussie '03 Win F
French '03 SF 4R
Legend: F = Lost in Finals; SF = Semifinals; QF = Quarterfinals; 4R = Fourth Round; 1R = First Round

"This could be true," Venus said. "It's hard to always know what you look like (on court) unless you watch the films. And sometimes others can see and you don't see. So I have to have input from, you know, my coaches, definitely watch my film and see what I'm doing and what I'm like."

Venus' game used to be all about aggression. Often, she went for a second-serve with first-serve strength. During her stretch of four Grand Slam title sin six events, she was 5aking the risk.

Now she struggles from her serve toss to shot placement. She is winless in her last five Grand Slam finals.

She needs to find the game she once had as well as find a new weapon to use, especially against Baby Sis. King thinks she can do it by heading for the net.

"It's about getting this generation of players to make that commitment in their mind before the ball bounces they have to go," King said. "And you live and die with whatever. Great serve-volleyers know that sometimes you're going to make a lousy approach shot, but you've made the commitment -- and you gotta live with it.

"But it's only one point."

Questions about whether she should change coaches are frequently thrown at Venus in news conferences and she often reacts as if they are an insult to her father, Richard. However, might she benefit from hearing perhaps the same thing in a different way.

"It's very, very helpful to hear it, hear someone say the same thing but in a different way," Venus said referring to her week at Fed Cup with King and Garrison. "Because I've been working with my coaches for years and years, and sometimes it can just go in one ear and out the other ear, you don't really hear what they're saying."

Venus enjoyed the entire Fed Cup experience so much she has committed to playing at Washington, D.C., in July. And Venus seemed, for the first time in a while, to have fun playing whether it was because of the team atmosphere or playing with her sister instead of competing against her.

And despite Serena's success -- three straight Grand Slam titles to end last year -- while she's struggled, Venus says she's fine with the relationship.

"I feel really good that she's doing well, to be honest," Venus said. "It's really encouraging for me. I would like her to do well, and hopefully be the victor at (the French Open).

"That would be nice."

"Venus and Serena are first and foremost sisters, and very loving sisters," King said. "Also Venus, being the older one, has always taken care of Serena. I think the most important thing that Venus needs to remember is that she needs to take care of her tennis and herself, too. Not to say don't always take care of your baby sister, but I think it's important for Venus to always have tennis in her life, as well, and sometimes I think it's harder for the older one to remember."

Despite the constant comparisons, when it comes down to it, Venus is different from her sister. Serena has admitted she'd like to make her mark in tennis history; Venus seems to think it's less important.

"I don't exactly think of my legacy too much," she said. "I'm a Jehovah's Witness and I'm a Christian. I don't really think that this life is the only thing that happens. So I want to be a good person, live up to God's standards, do my best in my career, whatever I do. How people remember me is not as important to me."

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor at ESPN.com.