Dress or success for Venus Williams?
WIMBLEDON, England -- It took one of the best women's matches of the year for Venus Williams' play to upstage her wardrobe. The battle of the veterans between 31-year-old Venus and 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm held Centre Court and TV viewers spellbound with its throwback net-rushing, slices and angles before Williams squeaked out a three-set win.
Those who were left wanting more get another chance Friday because the five-time champ will get another unusual stylist in Maria Jose Sanchez Martinez. The Spaniard likes to rush the net, unlike most other compatriots, but has still never done that well at Wimbledon. Her best result was reaching the third round as a qualifier in 2008, when Williams ended her run. If history repeats itself, Williams will face an intriguing fourth-round matchup with either Tsvetana Pironkova, who vanquished Venus in last year's Wimbledon quarterfinals, or last year's Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva.
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The calls of "What a shot" against Date were a change from the usual reaction to Williams' Grand Slam matches these days, often played to exclamations of "What is she wearing?" And Grand Slams are pretty much where we've seen the elder Williams lately -- until she played Eastbourne last week, Venus' past four tournaments were the four majors themselves. She hadn't played since the Australian Open in January, where she retired in the third round with a hip injury.
Despite being past the age at which most players are winning the big events, Williams still looks dangerous enough to challenge for a little while yet. It took eventual champ Kim Clijsters three tough sets to oust Venus at the U.S. Open, and she was looming as a potential threat at the Australian Open before getting injured. But she takes just as many puzzling losses, like the one last year at the All England Club to Pironkova. It seems likely that injuries have played a role in some of those defeats, but the extent remains unclear because Williams makes it a point never to say anything about how she's feeling physically.
But she insists that here, she has come back fully recovered. "This time I couldn't come back too soon or I'd be in the same situation as I was in Australia. That was very painful, is not something to go through twice," said Williams. "So I tried to come back this time when I felt like I was a lot stronger and not injured."
There's always an air of mystery around big sis Venus, but nothing is as puzzling as her recent string of outfits. Like her sister, Serena -- the defending Wimbledon champ -- Venus is known as a fashion aficionado, taking courses in the subject and designing the "EleVen" line she owns and wears on the court. But though avant-garde style may work on the catwalk, it rarely translates directly to the street, let alone a tennis court.
Her present outfit has been described as everything from a toga to a cleverly improvised pair of curtains. To add to the confusion, she is describing it as a "jumper," which in England means a sweater. It was not built for motion. The shorts are a little too short for receiving serve, and the draped shoulders balloon out when she serves. For someone who has been the best-dressed player at Wimbledon in the past and remains one of the most statuesque figures on the tour, Williams is not cutting a graceful figure in the photos so far this fortnight.
The fashion critics (OK, the press) have not been kind, and the outfit dominated reports of her first-round win. "First things first -- the dress," began a column in the Times, while the Telegraph suggested that it "appeared to be the closest that anyone has ever come up wearing a cut-off toga to this garden party" and that Williams looked like "she had come dressed in net curtains ripped from the windows of her Florida home."
This sort of thing is getting to be a regular occurrence. At the Australian Open, Williams wore a dress crisscrossed with holes she said had been inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Her U.S. Open outfit actually appeared to be a distraction, with the short, skin-tight dress having to be pulled down after almost every point. TV broadcasters even put up a "tug count" to keep track of the pulls. A Moulin Rouge-themed dress with sheer underwear at Roland Garros last year scandalized even the French, and skin-colored underwear at the Australian Open set off intense speculation when it proved to be almost invisible on TV screens.
"I was getting calls from my publicist in the middle of the night," recalled Williams last year. "The last time that happened there were rumors I'd gotten married."
Fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands has made a career of wearing clothes louder than her tennis. Steady improvement in her game resulted in her being seeded at Wimbledon, but she was making news for wearing a tennis-ball dress, made by Lady Gaga's designer, at a pre-Wimbledon party. On the court, she sported a tennis-ball warm-up jacket and a one-sleeve tennis outfit -- and then made a first-round exit. It's an imbalance Mattek-Sands surely hoped to avoid.
Williams has achieved too much for anything she wears to eclipse her career, but with an aging, injury-prone body and a growing groundswell of competition on tour, can she still make a bigger statement with her results than with her clothes?
Other matches to watch
Rafael Nadal versus Gilles Muller: Nadal is looking for revenge served very cold in this one. Muller defeated Nadal at Wimbledon in 2005, when the Spaniard was still getting used to the grass. In some ways, it's a break for Nadal. Instead of facing rising Milos Raonic in a much-hyped third-round encounter, Nadal will get the lower-ranked veteran from Luxembourg. Muller advanced after Raonic was forced to retire when he fell during their second-round match. Muller has a big serve and tends to be dangerous only for a handful of weeks a year, but this looks like it could be one of those weeks. Nadal will have to stay sharp and make the most of any opportunities to break.
Victoria Azarenka versus Daniela Hantuchova: A battle between an up-and-comer and a veteran who likes grass, this should be a close one. Hantuchova has played well -- almost too well -- coming into this tournament. The Slovakian did get hurt in Eastbourne after playing several long matches and had to retire in the semifinals. Hantuchova's first-round match at Wimbledon was another long one. Azarenka also got hurt during the lead-up to Wimbledon and likewise exited Eastbourne via retirement. But she was on the receiving end of the retirement in her first-round match and dropped only three games in her next match. It's a pick 'em.
Andy Roddick versus Fernando Lopez: Two big servers who are at their best on grass, this is a close one on paper until you look at the head-to-head -- 7-0 for Roddick. That reflects the American's greater mental toughness, but Lopez can be brilliant in patches and is always fun to watch.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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