Unpredictability advantageous for Venus

There were more questions about fashion than tennis after Venus Williams beat fellow American Bethanie Mattek on Wednesday. The defending champ led an impressive corps of Americans into the second round, Greg Garber writes.

Updated: June 29, 2006, 7:39 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- For so many reasons, Venus Williams' game and grass go together like the ultimate Wimbledon cliché, strawberries and cream.

Grass, quite simply, amplifies her overwhelming strengths and minimizes her minor weaknesses. Which is why Williams has won three of the six Wimbledon championships contested since the turn of the most recent century and appeared in five of six finals.

Venus Williams
Daniel Berehulak/Getty ImagesVenus Williams improved to 47-8 on grass in her career, the most wins by any woman in this year's field.

Some people were surprised when Williams crept through a crowded field a year ago and lifted the Rosewater Dish after the longest ladies final ever here against fellow American Lindsay Davenport. They should have seen it coming. While Williams was the lowest seed (No. 14) to ever win the title at the All England Club, no one in the women's field has won more than her 46 matches on grass (counting all grass tourneys).

"She's unpredictable," said Mary Joe Fernandez, a semifinalist here in 1991, "but at Wimbledon it's OK to be unpredictable."

Mandatory, perhaps?

"With shorter rallies, the consistency factor doesn't show up as much," Fernandez explained. "There is less opportunity for the forehand to break down. With Venus' serve, movement and ability to come forward, all the ingredients are there for her to succeed here."

Williams' title defense is off to a flawless start. She defeated fellow American Bethanie Mattek 6-1, 6-0 Wednesday on Centre Court in a flat match that required only 52 minutes. The trashing was so forceful, so thorough, that in light of Mattek's, uh, creative 1970s-inspired ensemble, neither player answered more than a handful of questions that actually pertained to tennis.

"She likes to go for it," Mattek said. "Every time she got a little off-pace ball, she'd go for a winner. [She's got a] pretty aggressive game."

While Williams is the only American woman among the 32 seeds -- the lowest figure here in the Open era -- she has some company among the tournament survivors, as 11 of the 14 American women entered advanced to the second round.

Lisa Raymond also advanced to the second round when qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova retired (Shvedova was leading 5-3); Laura Granville won 6-1, 7-6 (3) over Maret Ani; and Vania King was leading 5-4 when Julia Vakulenko retired. Amy Frazier prevailed over Mara Santangelo 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Meghann Shaughnessy was a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 winner over Alyona Bondarenko. Shenay Perry needed three sets to beat Kristina Barrois, 7-5, 5-7, 8-6. Ashley Harkleroad was a straight-sets winner over Jelena Kostanic as was Mashona Washington, who beat Julia Schruff. 6-3, 6-4.

Meilen Tu lost her second-round match Wednesday to Na Li of China. Jamea Jackson's second-round match with No. 15 Daniela Hantuchova was pushed back to Thursday.

Generally speaking, over the course of a quirky career, it's difficult to get a read on Williams. This year, it's impossible.

A tender right elbow has drastically limited her play; coming into Wimbledon, Williams had played only four tournaments and 14 matches -- five of them in the French Open. After getting bounced from the quarterfinals by Nicole Vaidisova, she flew home to Florida, as she usually does, and prepared by practicing on hard courts.

The All England Club, which does not religiously mirror rankings when they seed players, wisely made Williams the No. 6 seed, although she is ranked No. 12 -- the only adjustment on the women's side.

Williams has always followed an eclectic fashion accessory path, but on Wednesday she was upstaged -- in a bad, bad way -- by Mattek's retro-Suzanne Somers biker look.

In the past, Mattek has worn a leopard-print dress, a 50 Cent-influenced hat and was once fined for coming onto the court at the U.S. Open wearing a cowboy hat. Clearly unaware of her dubious place in the fashion food chain, Mattek sported a pierced left eyebrow, big dangly earrings, a bandanna and, worst of all, some high-top white socks that cost her 10 pounds at Harrods.

"I was going for kind of the soccer theme," she said. "All the players in the locker room are like, 'Oh, my God, Beth, what are you wearing today?' I'm not sure how it went over. I just pretty much went on my gut, just ... what I felt like wearing today.

"Hopefully, it was good."

Williams, who owns an interior design company and is pursuing a bachelor's degree in interior design, was asked who won the fashion battle.

"She looked really cute," Williams said. "I guess it was a close one, huh?"

Mattek, who actually served bigger than Williams, won her first service game -- and then went 0-for-5 the rest of the way.

At the very end of her press conference, Williams was asked why her game plays so well on grass.

"I like to play aggressive," she said. "I'm all about moving forward and taking my opportunities. I think I just have the mentality for it. Plus, obviously, my serve.

"So all of it plays well into [grass]."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.