Sore Back to the Future

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Venus is fighting her body while trying to stay competitive

PARIS – On Sunday afternoon just outside of Paris’ largest park, Venus Williams and Urszula Radwanska played a cracker of three setter which was eventually won by the 22 year old Pole 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 6-4 in three hours and 19 minutes. The match was exciting because the tremendous effort put in by both players, not because of the quality of the contest, which did feature some fun exchanges and some admirable winners, but there were a slew of winners from both competitors, neither of whom played anywhere close to her best.

To Aga’s younger’s sister, that doesn’t matter so much because she’s been in a slump and as well as she’s played outside of the Slams over the past year or so, she has not exactly been money at the majors. A gutsy and dramatic win over a seven-time Slam champ might be all she needs to turn her season around and launch herself back into the top 30, provided that if she does play her older sister in the third round she doesn’t get skunked and see her confidence disappear once again.

In my mind, Venus should not have played this tournament, but she is ultra competitive, loves her sport and is missing playing high-level events.  But she injured her back sometime in early April, which forced her to pull out of Madrid and then she looked like a shadow of herself against Laura Robson in Rome. The same could be said for her performance against Radwanska: the same women who dominated the lawns of Wimbledon five times by firing serves into the 120s, didn’t average more than 95-mph against Radwanska. She didn’t have her wicked slice serve going either and often served right down the middle, which was why she was broken time and time again. Yes, she has tools from the baseline and is a very good net player, but at this stage in her career, many of the youngsters hit with the same pace so if she can’t intimidate with her serve and hold a lot , she isn’t going to win any tournament, much less a major.

Venus is getting daily treatment on her lower back injury and is planning  to play doubles with her sister, Serena. But how smart is that considering that the 32-year-old’s only realistic chance of making an impact at a Slam is at Wimbledon.

“ I can’t really serve very hard. It’s painful when I do that,” she said. “But I’m getting better.  I just ran out of time to get better for this tournament.  My strategy was more or less to put the ball in, and that’s very difficult for me, too, because that’s not who I am.  But that’s all I had… I want my serve back.  I’m going to try to get it back for Wimbledon.”

Williams says that she doesn’t believe that she is risking future tournaments by playing in Paris (“As long as I serve soft, I don’t think I’ll get worse. “I think my opponents like the soft serve.”) but does she really know that? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but the fact is that even a week and half of rest between Rome and her match on Sunday didn’t help her much.

As the tennis world knows, the 32-year-old is also battling an autoimmune disease, so that she’s even out there giving it a go is very admirable. She hates to lose. Although her perspective is a little better than it was say five years ago after she took difficult losses.

“What I’ve gone through, it’s not easy,” she said. “But I’m strong and I’m a fighter. I don’t think I’m just playing for me now. I think I’m playing for a lot of people who haven’t felt well. I think for me today it’s a positive to be able to play three hours.  I’m constantly finding ways to get better and to feel better. For me, I would never give up because obviously at some point everyone has to retire. That’s an asterisk, but I feel like I have to give myself a chance to continue working on feeling better. I wouldn’t just give up just because it was difficult. That’s not me.  So my thing is that I’m going to  continue trying.”

Williams says that her previous success helps her get over their defeats because it is those victories that “keep you warm at night” and that if she had never had any prior success, she would feel horrible.

She’s considering asking for a wild card into a grass court warm-up because she needs match play, but if she is going to play Eastbourne, her back better be in great shape so that she’s truly ready for a potential three straight week stretch that includes another eye-popping run at the All England Club.  She has not lost faith, even if Father Time is nipping at her heels.

“Yeah, I’m definitely optimistic that I’ll play well,” she said.

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