Commentary

No tune-ups, no problem for the Williamses at Wimbledon

Though the Williams sisters have struggled of late in Grand Slam play, they have an unabashed self-reliance when they play at the All England Club.

Updated: June 26, 2008, 4:09 PM ET
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

Serena WilliamsAP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthSerena Williams has not reached a Grand Slam semifinal since winning the Australian Open in 2007.
It's definitely an interesting phenomenon: No matter how the Williams sisters are playing coming into Wimbledon -- good, bad or just so-so -- when they get to the hallowed All England Club grounds, they are considered odds-on favorites.

It's not that far-fetched considering that in six of the past eight years, one or the other of the Williams sisters has been the queen of Wimbledon -- Venus won in '00, '01, '05 and '07, and Serena won in '02 and '03.

In the only two years in that span that a Williams was not registered as champion, Maria Sharapova and Amelie Mauresmo were the champions. Sharapova reigned in 2004, when Serena lost in the final and Venus shockingly fell in the second round. And in 2006, Amelie Mauresmo scored her second Grand Slam trophy as both Serena and Venus were sent packing in the third round.

So it comes as no surprise that even though Serena Williams has not advanced past a Grand Slam quarterfinal since winning the 2007 Australian Open, and Venus has not won a Grand Slam title since last year's Wimbledon, many tennis pundits believe it to be a given that a Williams sister will make it seven titles in nine years for the family.

However, their mother, Oracene Price, is not that certain about the Wimbledon outcome.

The practical voice of reason behind her daughters, Price doesn't like to make lofty assumptions regarding their results, choosing a more restrained strategy of taking things one step at a time.

"Really," said Price, when asked about her offspring's domination at Wimbledon. "I didn't even know that. That's quite a record. I never thought about it. Maybe I will think about it, but right now I just see them going out there and struggling to try and win.

"I just keep things open and hope they do well."

[+] EnlargeVenus Williams
AP Photo/Alastair GrantVenus Williams is a four-time champion at the All England Club.
The sisters arrived at Wimbledon, as usual, with no warmup at another grass-court tournament. That means until the tournament started here on Monday, they hadn't played a match since both were unceremoniously dumped from the French Open in the third round on the same day.

Venus, who was seeded No. 23 when she won the title last year and was seeded No. 14 for her 2005 victory, credits their strong self-assurance for why their names are mentioned as potential 2008 champions.

"I think that we really have a positive image for ourselves, which is always important," she said upon reaching the third round with a straight-sets win over Briton Anne Keothavong on Thursday. "I think no matter what tournament we play, we always feel like we have the opportunity to really do something great."

For Serena, it's the self-imposed challenge that motivates her.

"[The] only pressure that's on me is the pressure I put on myself," Serena said on Wednesday after securing a third-round encounter against Mauresmo, the 2006 Wimbledon champion.

"I'm a perfectionist and I want everything to be right. I've been really trying not to do that and just relax."

David Witt, who is working with Venus as a traveling hitting partner, was walking around the players' restaurant at the All England Club on Wednesday, lunch tray in hand, looking for the defending champion. She had just walked ahead of him after being stopped briefly by restaurant personnel, with her chicken lunch in hand, because she, oops, forgot her badge. Venus, looking like a tall drink of water in a skintight white running suit, finally convinced the employee that she belonged there.

"I think she feels good and she loves playing here," Witt said of Venus. "She's excited to get out there and get playing."

Witt knows that Wimbledon holds a special place in Venus' heart. And why wouldn't it when you've won the most prestigious title in the game four times?

There's no denying that returning to a venue that has been kind to a player is a distinct advantage for any athlete's self-confidence.

"I think confidence is everything anywhere you play," Witt said. "When you win somewhere, you always enjoy going back to that place. It makes you feel confident when you play there again."

Witt believes this factor offers enough of an advantage for Venus that she has an excellent chance of winning a fifth trophy a week from Saturday -- tying King and putting her within striking distance of three other Wimbledon champions with multiple victories: King (five), Steffi Graf (seven) and Martina Navratilova (nine).

"Absolutely, she's ready to go and she's excited for every match she plays," Witt said.

American Bethanie Mattek, who will play in the third round at Wimbledon for the first time Friday, has kept an eye on the Williamses since she joined the tour -- as any good student trying to learn from champions would do.

She believes the other players always think of Venus and Serena as the ones most likely to succeed.

"I think even when Serena won her Australian Open, I want to say she was unseeded, so no matter what she's a fighter, she's strong, she's athletic," Mattek said. "She'll always be a tough opponent regardless of whether she hasn't played in a year or played last week.

"They're both big girls and they're hard to play. They're both strong and powerful, and I'm sure that they'll always be favorites."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.