Venus' world (again) heading to Wimbledon

With Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport out, Venus Williams is the only seeded American at Wimbledon. Mark Kreidler writes that more than a decade after turning pro, it's still Venus' world.

Updated: June 22, 2006, 11:34 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Oh, sure, it's just like we figured it: In the end, we're crawling right back to Venus.

They're dropping as if from heatstroke, the American hopes at Wimbledon. First, Venus Williams' sister Serena said she couldn't make it because her injured knee won't cooperate. This week came official confirmation of the long-running unofficial fear: Lindsay Davenport, a three-time Wimby finalist and former champion who hasn't played since March because of a back injury, won't be putting in a grass-court appearance this year, either.

Venus Williams
AP PhotoNo one expected Venus Williams to win Wimbledon in 2005. This year, she's America's best hope to win in England.
You can't even root for Mary Pierce, whom many Americans like to think of as their own despite her French citizenship. Pierce, too, is out. Bad foot.

So, anyway: How does everybody feel about loving Venus again? Y'all up for that?

Williams seems up to the task -- and good thing. She's about all we have, no offense to any rising stars or that Martina Navratilova wants to play some doubles. When it comes to center court at Wimbledon, the Americans' chances on the women's side rest almost exclusively with a person who hasn't always been decipherable even to her most ardent fans.

This much is true: If Venus is on her game, she wins. She's the defending champion, having blasted all the way through as a 14th seed in 2005. She knocked off Maria Sharapova in the semis and Davenport in a three-set final, and it was vintage Venus straight down the line.

She'll be battling herself a little bit this year, having dealt already with months' worth of infirmities -- elbows and arms, mostly -- and bowed out in the quarterfinals at the French Open. Of course, she doesn't much like clay.

Grass, Venus can handle. She has won three Wimbledon titles in 10 appearances and been in two other finals there. When she hits London, in many ways, she is home.

She's also the only star power in the American field. With Davenport and Serena Williams absent, all eyes turn to Venus. And that's the part about us crawling back.

It's almost shocking to consider that Venus Williams is only 26 years old; it feels as though she has been around forever, in part because she already was hammering forehands at the All England Club by age 17.

Beyond that, though, sits the truth that Venus' relationship with American fans has been of the up-and-down variety. Depending on which source you consult, the player over the years has been too aloof, too headstrong, too flashy, too manipulated by her dad, too wishy-washy about tennis itself or just plain too much.

Williams and her sister ushered in an almost entirely new wave of tennis -- and tennis fans. Their power games redefined the women's landscape, essentially taking the torch from Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis and the like. The color of their skin broadened horizons for the sport, but they had games any fan could love. It was, for the most part, a tennis thing, not a race thing.

At the same time, Williams and her sister ushered in an almost entirely new wave of tennis -- and tennis fans. Their power games redefined the women's landscape, essentially taking the torch from Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis and the like. The color of their skin broadened horizons for the sport, but they had games any fan could love. It was, for the most part, a tennis thing, not a race thing.

In Venus' ebullience, some saw arrogance, and occasionally they saw it because it was there. Yet it was only when Venus made it clear she didn't want to play tennis forever that a sense of actual alarm set in: What, she might go away?

In fact, Williams has gone away at times in the past decade, either bored by the tennis touring or distracted by the other interests in her life, interior design chief among them. In each departure, the sport was poorer for her absence. Tennis is a more interesting place when Venus and Serena are in it.

Now, Venus Williams takes on Wimbledon as the only real hope for the Americans, which puts her front and center before the same fans who at times haven't been sure what to make of her. If they want somebody from the U.S. to root for on the women's side the next couple of weeks, she's it. Ten years after, and it's still Venus' world.

Mark Kreidler of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.