Williams' effectiveness on grass second to none
Her adaptability and adeptness on grass are unassailable. Just two match wins shy of a fifth Wimbledon championship, Venus Williams is the best grass-court player of her generation.
Sitting at a table on the second-floor terrace outside the press center at the All England Club on Wednesday, he munched a chicken baguette and mused about his oldest daughter.
"As a kid -- she was probably 8 or 9 -- she told me she wanted to win Wimbledon," Williams said. "She knew it even then."
Not only did Venus Ebony Starr Williams win Wimbledon, she's hoisted the sterling silver Venus Rosewater Dish four times in the past eight years -- if it hadn't been created 122 years ago, it might have been named for her. When you factor in Venus' two other appearances in the final (losses to little sister Serena), she's played in six of the past eight championship matches.
Those numbers will be a remarkable seven of nine if the defending champion defeats Elena Dementieva in a semifinal match on Friday. Serena meets Zheng Jie in the other semifinal. The Williams sisters are overwhelming favorites to reach their first Grand Slam final in five years.
Venus' body of work on grass -- quality far outdistances quantity -- places her high among the all-time greats. She has won 60 of her 66 matches on grass for a terrific winning percentage of .869. This is surpassed only by Martina Navratilova (.888) and Chris Evert (.882).
Navratilova leads the Open era with nine titles at the All England Club, followed by Steffi Graf (seven). Billie Jean King won six titles here between 1966 and '75 and Venus is next in line. That would make her the finest grass player of her generation.
"She's one of the all-time greats on the surface, no question about it," Navratilova told ESPN producer Willie Weinbaum on Tuesday. "Venus is better adaptable to the grass [than Serena], she has better volley technique, and she covers the net better."
It wasn't always that way. ESPN analyst Pam Shriver remembers Venus' first match here, back in 1997.
"She didn't have a clue," Shriver said.
Venus, who had just turned 17, won the first set against Poland's Magdalena Grzybowska, but crashed and burned in a hail of unforced errors, losing 6-4, 2-6, 4-6. She was raised on hard courts and was clearly more comfortable on them; two months later she was in the U.S. Open final, on a hard court opposite Martina Hingis.
A year later, having assimilated the surface in swift fashion, Venus advanced to the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
"She realized that her game was well suited to grass," Shriver said. "She started taking people out wide on her serve to open up the court. She started using her reach in coming to net and volleying. She's even started shortening up her return swing.
"Grass works for her because she doesn't like long rallies. On other surfaces, you may need five, six, seven strokes to win a point. Here, she can get out of a point with two, three strokes, so her forehand has less of a chance to break down."
What, specifically, makes Venus such a fabulously effective creature on grass?
For starters, there is her size. She stands 6-foot-1 and, as they say in the NBA, plays much, much bigger and longer.
"I think I have a lot of power," Venus said, laughing. "Definitely, the power helps. My serve is very difficult to return on this surface."
If it's returned at all. While Serena ranks No. 1 among all women with 34 aces through five matches, Venus is second at 30. But when it comes to pure speed, no one is even close. Venus hit one serve 127 mph, a Wimbledon record. Second place? Serena and Samantha Stosur at 120 mph.
On Tuesday, when Serena was asked which characteristic of Venus' she coveted most she said, "Wow. I would have her legs. She has the sexiest legs."
Venus' wingspan is enormous and, coupled with her long legs and startling acceleration, she covers a lot of ground and is usually successful at net.
Said Richard, still listed along with her mother, Oracene, as her co-coach, in a stage whisper, "I wish she would come in a little bit more."
"She's just so big at the net," Navratilova marveled. "And, on the grass, if you're not quick, you need to be fast -- and she's pretty much both.
"She takes one step, and her reach -- if we went from a neutral point and I take one step and I reach and she takes one step, she's probably got this much [holding hands about two feet apart] on me. And that's huge on grass, because often times you only have time for that one step, and where I would not even be getting to the ball, she would hit a good defensive shot. And when I would be hitting a defensive shot, she hits an offensive shot."
Because grass is a living, breathing thing, it isn't the most consistent of surfaces. When the baseline gets crusty and rutted toward the end of the tournament, there are a lot of bad bounces. Venus, despite her height, is particularly adept at picking these low, scooting balls off the ground.
Richard attributes her mastery of grass to balance.
"It seems like she's always in good position, even on the run," he observed. "Usually tall girls don't have that kind of body control, but she took ballet lessons when she was 6 or 7. She also did Tae Kwon Do, too, and I think it helped."
Venus has blown through her first five matches without losing a set and there is no reason to think she won't advance to the final. Two more wins here and she'll be within a mere point of Navratilova's all-time grass winning percentage.
"Man," said Richard Williams. "I had no idea. I have so much respect for Martina Navratilova. To think that Venus is that close to a legend."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
ESPN Classic will replay Rafael Nadal's epic five-set victory over Roger Federer in the men's final on Monday at 7 p.m. ET.
• Bob Bryan beats brother Mike in mixed doubles
• Garber: Nadal muscles his way to championship
• Ubha: Top five Wimbledon finals
• Harwitt: Loss a microcosm of Federer's year
• Ubha: Wimbledon men's final instant analysis
• Bodo: Nadal shows plenty of courage
Day 13 • Women | Scores
• Garber: Venus finally stands up to little sister
• Ubha: Williamses match competitive and clean
• Garber: Borg the man in the middle
• Ubha: Wimbledon women's final instant analysis
• Who will win the Wimbledon men's singles final?
• Bodo: Five reasons Nadal can win
Day 12 • Men | Scores
• Garber: Best friends set to do battle again
• Harwitt: Coach-less Federer ready for title
• Ubha: Nadal clearly in Federer's head
• Who will win the Wimbledon women's final?
Day 11 • Men | Women | Scores
• Garber: Time is now for Nadal at Wimbledon
• Ubha: Top Williams sisters moments
• Grass Stains: Williamses ready for showdown
• Tennis.com: Rafa will win Wimbledon
Day 10 • Men | Scores
• Wimbledon women's court schedule troubles WTA
• Ubha: Federer serving lights out
• Nadal blog: Happy to get by Murray
• Garber: Venus is best grass-courter of generation
• Star Watch: Safin looking confident again
Day 9 • Women | Scores
• Garber: Williams sisters crushing opponents
• Ford: Ancic hoping to take care of Federer again
• Chip and Charge: Olympics taking center stage
• Ubha: Can Murray maintain momentum Day 8 • Men | Women | Scores
• Garber: Unpredictability in women's tennis
• Grass Stains: Valiant determination from Lopez
• Star Watch: Murray electifies hometown crowd Day 7 • Ford: Midway at Wimbledon report
• Ubha: Breaking down the final 16 in each bracket
See all stories from Week 1