Venus’ long & winding road back to respectability

(Last Updated On: August 9, 2013)
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Venus still cannot crank up her serve.

FROM THE ROGERS CUP IN TORONTO – It is never easy to see a formerly great player decline. Roger Federer fans are experiencing that this year, and Pete Sampras fans experienced that at the beginning of this century. Those fans that love Martina Hingis got a whiff of that around 2003 and again in 2007 and even in her return in doubles in the past week or so, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who is watching her that she would be hard pressed to even crack the top 20 in singles if she chooses to go that route, even though a return to the top spot in doubles in quite possible.

The fans of Venus Williams are dealing with something altogether different though, as they are watching one of the most significant players of the Open Era struggle with an auto-immune disease and a series of injuries, this time a serious one to her back, which isn’t allowing her to play anywhere close to her prime. If one watched a tape of her stirring and ethereal victory over Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 Wimbledon final – perhaps the most well played women’s final in the past decade or even further — and then watched her go down to Kirsten Flipkens 0-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round of the Rogers Cup on Tuesday, a marked difference that is as glaring as her new partially red hair color. Her play in the last set and half of that loss was a good 70% below her 2005 level: she was wild and often weak off the ground, her return had little pop, she was a bit slow to the ball and once again, she could not crank up the serve that had struck fear into the heart of the rest of the tour when she first appeared on the WTA back in November of 1994.

Right now, Venus is shadow of her former great self  and unless something radically changes in the next two weeks or so, it’s hard to see the 33-year-old even reaching the second week of the US Open. She hasn’t won the tournament since she went back to back in 2000-2001, but she remained very competitive there through 2010. In 2011, she began to be affected by Sjorden’s Syndrome and came out in public at the US Open and told the world of her troubles. Since then, she has had a couple of decent shorts spurts of play, but she has been unable to sustain that level, which is very understandable give that it has been hard enough for her just to find away to get her energy level up to live a decent day, then to practice, and then to play a handful of matches. But to able consistently sustain a top-10 level of play? No, she has not been there since last spring and yesterday it appeared like she might not even be able to pull off a top 50 level of play.

Perhaps she will in the future, but it is so hard to see a player –regardless of how great she once was — who has played only one good tournament this season (Charleston where she scored wins over Monica Puig, Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys before Serena belted her in the semis)  rise up and start playing A-Level ball against when her back injury isn’t fully healed.

And it is not, because if it was she could have been able to go out on court against Flipkens and smoke  serves, not go for 3/4s speed and have very little spin of any significance when she tried to slice or kick it.

“ I just really started serving a lot more in the last week, so I’m not really, 100% on the serve yet,” she said. “So it was better not to take too many risks and just do something I felt more comfortable with. This week I will definitely be practicing my serve a lot more and getting more confident in it. So definitely today my service games I didn’t feel like myself, because usually I step up to the line, I go for it a lot, but I didn’t really feel like I could do that today.”

Venus’ traveling coach/hitting partner David Witt told ESPN.com that her back is fine. He knows better than most, but if it really is fine, then why didn’t she just go all out on her serve, or decide to play doubles this week to get more matches in, or singles and doubles next week in Cincinnati, or singles in New Haven or singles and doubles at the US Open?

Because she feels that it is not and it’s very vulnerable.

“I have to be really easy on my back now,” she said. “I can’t force it.  Doubles would be awesome, but it’s not an option right now.  Hopefully I will just be able to obviously play at the Open.”

Venus is in a tricky position. She badly wants to be a contender again, and the most of the important of the season – Roland Garros through the US Open — will conclude in five weeks. If she can’t get on court, her season will essentially be a wash. She needs matches, but as we saw on Tuesday against Flipkens and in May in her losses to Laura Robson (Rome) and Ula Radwanska (Roland Garros), she also cannot win them at a 50% level. She realizes that she’s in a Catch -22.

“Coming back from injury, you have to build the confidence to just realize that you can come back and play without pain,” she said. “So I feel like I’m in that threshold of building confidence, and I really want to be able to play matches before the US Open.  That’s a lot of what happened to me at the French, too.  I played an intense and a really fun, exciting match, but I hadn’t played any matches.  So it was like just a tough situation to be in.  Do you play or you don’t play? So I feel like kind of in that situation now going into the US Open.  Do you play or don’t play?”

She will play on, but until she feels confident enough to go for her shots and has enough court time to keep the yellow pill in the court, she won’t have the degree of success that she’d like too. She will be a sentimental favorite everywhere she goes (she received a lot of crowd support in Toronto) so that will make her feel good to a degree, but she’s a proud competitor and will not be able to easily accept losing to players whom she used to be able dust in matter of minutes.

That will be another one of her many tests mocking forward. She says her goal is to play the 2016 Rio Olympics – which is long three years away – and most of the tennis industry and her fan base hopes that she accomplishes that goal, but as of this week it looks like a reach – about as lengthy as one of her vintage 2005 stretch volleys that won her third Wimbledon crown.

Kleybanova’s return: she wants W’s

Speaking of warriors, former top 20 player Alisa Kleybanova took the court on Wednesday night against Canada’s beloved Genie Bouchard. It was Kleybanova’s first WTA level match since March of 2012, and only her second since she was diagnosed with cancer in the early summer of 2011.  She began her comeback in May playing ITFs and then World Team Tennis, but that is not the same as a WTA level match against a promising up and comer who responded very well to playing at home.

Kleybanova’s ball striking was very decent, but not at her pre-cancer levels. That should not be expected. Like Venus, she needs matches, practice, and improved fitness — pretty much everything.

“I haven’t been getting tired recently at all.  I have been playing and training every day,” she said.

“I’m back to normal, back to regular basics. Now it’s all about playing matches.  It’s all about the competing thing an, all the points and playing the tournament, the atmosphere, handling the stress out there, getting used to it more because I have been out for a while. Now it’s everything a little bit new for me again.  It takes time to get used to it.”

She is only 24, so age is not a factor in her comeback but clearly she went through a harrowing experience and although she feels healthy again, mentally it took her a lot of work just to be able to declare herself ready to give the sport a go again. She tried in March of 2012, but  it was too soon and she grew disappointed. She didn’t give up, but it was not the right decision.

“I couldn’t deal with all the stress in my body and obviously felt I wasn’t ready yet, she said. “I took some time off.  I was trying to get back on tour through [2012], but I always felt like I’m not there yet.  So the middle of summer I decided just to take it easy and, you know, wait till the next year, because it’s very hard to every couple weeks set a goal and you feel like I’m not ready and move it again and then you’re not ready. So it’s just too much stress, trying to get ready for a certain event and then not participate. Basically it was pretty stressful mentally not to play for such a long time and like train and try to take time off because seeing I’m not ready. So it took me a lot of patience. I had to like really, you know, try to take it easy, not rush things.  It was very, very difficult mentally, even more mental than physical.”

Here’s the thing about Kleybanova though: she’s just not happy to be back in court. Of course she’s happy that she has her health back, but results still matter to her. She was not thrilled that she was rarely chosen to play singles in World TeamTennis given that she was the most accomplished player on her team, but perhaps her coach saw that she wasn’t quite ready yet (she did lose to Hingis in singles in the WTT final) for prime time.

She might be in a few months time, but she does not appear to be just yet. She’s a smart person and terrific character who adds a lot of flavor to the tour. Let’s just hope she takes it easy on herself because at last of last night, grabbing some W’s seemed very important to her.

“I think no matter what I have been through, wins and losses are still important, because as an athlete I go on the court and with all my heart I want to win every match,” she said with tear welling up in her eyes.

So of course when you lose it’s very tough.  So obviously you go out there to win. It’s always going to be tough.  It’s never going to be like I go on the court, Okay, I lost, doesn’t matter.  You always try to think like that, but it’s not always like that. But I know that right now I need to be even stronger than before, because to come back it’s going to take a while, it’s going to take maybe some not great matches as was today, but I need to go through this, I need to get this experience, and sometimes it’s not going to be very positive experience.  I just have to get ready for that, because I know that my way won’t be easy and I need to go for it and believe that I can do it.”

Also of note

Stanford champ Dominica Cibulkova has done a nice job coming off her loss to Ana Ivanovic in Carlsbad, Beating Jana Cepalova in the first round and then taking out Angelique Kerber 6‑7 (0), 6‑2, 7‑5 in a marathon…Bouchard will get a much more severe test when she has to go up against defending champ Petra Kvitova on Wednesday night. BTW Kvitova says that she & her ‘friend’ Radek Stepanek will split fitness trainer Marek Vseticek’s time. They haven’t negotiated who gets him when tournaments are not  combined…Caroline Wozniacki returns the same day and will play her friend Sorana Cirstea. ..Lauren Davis continues to be a tough out and bested Svetlana Kuznetsova both in qualifying and the first round, which earned her a match up against Marion Bartoli, who is also playing for the first time since Wimbledon. Here are a few of Bartoli’s most recent thoughts…Sania Mirza, who as gone gluten free, will play doubles with Zheng Jie through the US Open. Her former partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands will not play doubles for the rest of the summer as she’s focusing on singles…Abigail Spears and Raquel-Kops-Jones, who defeated Hingis and Hantuchova last week in Carlsbad en route the title, also won Stanford the week prior, the first time the long time US duo has won back to back premiers. If I’m US Fed captain Mary Joe Fernandez, I’m going them a strong look for Fed Cup duty next season. Spears could play back-up singles if needed.