Venus begins quest for fourth Wimbledon title

Monday, June 26, 2006
Defending women's champion Venus Williams talked to reporters during a news conference Sunday at Wimbledon. (Associated Press)

The American has been plagued by injuries but remains dangerous on grass.

WIMBLEDON, England -- As recently as a year ago, there was a growing sense that Venus Williams was no longer the player she once was, lacking the drive and perhaps the game to compete for Grand Slam titles.

And then came her masterful fortnight on the lawns of the All England Club, capped by a thrilling, 9-7 third-set victory over Lindsay Davenport in the final, giving Williams a third Wimbledon championship.

So it clearly would be a mistake to discount her chances when play begins today at the grass-court major, even if she's ranked only 12th, has a 10-4 record in another injury-interrupted season and is without a title of any sort since, well, Wimbledon.

Asked Sunday if her success at this tournament in 2005 meant she has nothing left to prove, Williams sounded as hungry and confident as ever.

"I'm not in the proving business, but I am in the business of playing very good tennis, particularly at Wimbledon. Am I more relaxed this year? It seems like it," she said. "I always love to bring home the title. When I come to a tournament, especially Wimbledon, I feel like I'm definitely one of the main contenders to do that."

But for how much longer? Talk of retirement is filling the air around these parts after Andre Agassi's announcement Saturday that this will be his last Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open will be his last tournament, period.

Williams is taking more precautions to protect her sometimes fragile 26-year-old body, saying Sunday that she won't play for the United States against Belgium in the Fed Cup semifinals because, "I can't play that mwch tennis and stay healthy. It's a proven fact." Still, while saying she hasn't thought about walking away from the sport, she added her future could be tied to that of her sister Serena, who hasn't played since January because of an injured left knee.

"I'd like it if we retired together," Venus said. "That would be cool."

Even with Serena and Davenport (bad back) sidelined, there is a long list of potential women's champions, including 2004 winner Maria Sharapova, No. 1-ranked Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters -- and the unretired Martina Hingis, who won Wimbledon way back in 1997 at age 16, and is competing at the tournament for the first time since 2001.

"Venus, you can never count her out," Hingis said. "She showed she's still got some skills last year."

At least one Williams sister -- on two occasions, both -- played in each of the past six Wimbledon finals. Venus is 34-3 at the All England Club since 2000; her previous play on grass is why her seeding (No. 6) is better than her ranking.

"It seems," she said, "like my game goes to another level here."

Andy Roddick might be hoping that happens for him again, too. He's reached the final the last two years at Wimbledon, and was a semifinalist in 2003, each time losing to eventual champion Roger Federer.

Roddick's been in a bit of a funk in 2006, going 24-11 without a title, but his powerful serve and forehand allow him to dictate points on grass.

"We get three months on clay a year, and we get only three weeks on grass, so I have to try and make the most of it. I really look forward to it," he said Sunday. "You know what it is -- this surface is favorable for my game, I like the conditions, it suits me. The recipe is there for something really good to happen."

At least one other person also believes the 2003 U.S. Open champion can regain his groove over the next two weeks: Federer.

Why?

"Because of his game and of his name and because of his experience, what he's achieved on grass the last few years," Federer said. "The former No. 1s, the former Grand Slam champions -- any tournament, they can all of a sudden turn it around and win and be extremely dangerous and tough. No different for Andy."

As the defending champion, Federer gets the honor of playing the first match on Centre Court today. A win would be his 42nd in a row on grass, breaking Bjorn Borg's record set in 1976-81.

The draw didn't do Federer any favors, however. He opens against Richard Gasquet of France, who won a second straight title at the Nottinghman grass-court tuneup last week and was edged by Federer 7-6 (7), 6-7 (7), 6-4 the week before at Halle, Germany.

Federer, who's won seven of the past 12 Grand Slam tournaments, paid Gasquet the highest of compliments Sunday: "Reminds me a bit of me sometimes."

If Federer gets through that test, he could face four-time Wimbledon semifinalist Tim Henman of Britain in the second round.

"It's one of the toughest draws I've had in a long time," said Federer, attempting to become only the third man since 1913 to collect four consecutive Wimbledon titles, joining Borg and Pete Sampras. "But to win the tournament, you've got to beat everybody, so that's obviously my aim."

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