Commentary

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.

Updated: July 2, 2008, 1:38 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Venus WilliamsAP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthVenus Williams' size and power have been instrumental in winning four Wimbledon titles.
WIMBLEDON, England -- Richard Williams zipped up his red Australian Open fleece jacket and looked up warily at the threatening clouds.

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.

Martina Navratilova
AP Photo/Adam StoltmanMartina Navratilova won a record nine Wimbledon titles between 1978 and 1990.
"I'm aggressive, so that helps a ton," Venus said. "The ball's going to go through the court if you're moving forward."

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.

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.