Back to Back: A Smart Venus Harries Henin

Venus Williams

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As coronavirus began to strike the tennis world, Indian Wells cancelled the tournament on March 9. Right after that, the tournaments pulled out quickly, including Miami, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros. Now, the WTA and the ATP have shut down until June 7. Or even further. No one really knows.

However, if you love tennis, you can reminisce with We are resurfacing many of our best stories, written by Matthew Cronin.

WIMBLEDON – Early on at The Championships, when the sun was burning bright and hot and pale British ball kids were dropping faster than Tories from Parliament, defending champion Venus Williams  sat through another lengthy question and answer session that mostly focused on the triumphs of Jennifer Capriati. Unlike Jennifer, Venus had made an awful showing in Paris just a couple weeks prior and many observers had forgotten whxat a cagey woman she had become over the past year. 

Called a mindless basher by some and an immature trash talker by others, Venus was the most thoughtful of all the competitors during the ’01 Wimbledon fortnight and unlike many narrowed-minded jocks that proliferate the U.S. sporting scene, she wanted to assure her public that she believed that having intellect is very cool. “Being smart is one thing and having common sense is another,” said Venus. “There’s a lot off things that goes into the combination. But it is sweet when you can think your way through situations. I like having smarts.”

American knocks off Tauziat & Davenport
Brilliant was more like it for the vexing V en route to her second straight Wimbledon title, when in the second week she schooled two veterans — Nathalie Tauziat and Lindsay Davenport — and one bright teen, Belgian Justine Henin, over whom she delivered a dissertation on mid-match thinking in the final round with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-0 victory.  “Not bad for a ghetto girl, doing two in a row,” her father Richard, said.

You see, it was apparent to Venus the minute she stepped on the hallowed lawns of the All-England Club that she had the best game for the surface. That’s right — better than ’99 champ Davenport, ’97 champ Hingis, her erratic sister, Serena, and the long-swinging Capriati. When she’s focused and determined, Venus has the most devastating serve in the business. She is sure-footed on grass and extremely fast. She is a wall from the baseline and is able to hit backhand winners from any angle and has improved her forehand to the point where it is no longer just a defensive shot. She has tremendous reach around the net and is developing into a fine volleyer.  “I have a good combination for Wimbledon,” she said. “Because I return very well on grass and I serve very well, plus I’m willing to move forward when I get to Wimbledon.” 

For Venus, winning the title was more a matter of keeping her head in the game, putting her family’s off-court distractions aside and playing thinking woman’s tennis. Whether she was a bit rusty entering the event was irrelevant. “Really, it’s not about who’s playing the best, its about who’s making the right decisions at the right times, who’s playing the right points well,” she said.

The 21-year-old Compton native was the only player in the field who did that most of time. Hingis crashed out in the first round due to a bad back and a rapidly developing case of burnout. Serena was completely stressed out with the prospect of playing Capriati in the quarters, caught a virus and found herself staring down miserably at the bottom of a toilet in the third set of her loss to Jennifer, rather smiling up smiling at royalty in a match that was her’s for the taking. Davenport was still too out of synch after three months off, one wonders if she is still too unsure of whether she has the weapons to beat Venus anymore (that’s three straight losses to Williams in Slams). And Capriati was looking ahead to a final with Venus when she got caught napping in the last two sets of her loss to Henin, the feisty all-courter with raccoon eyes and a nuclear backhand that already might be the prettiest one-hander that the women’s game has ever produced.

With her rabbit feet, rolling forehand, full-hip-and-shoulder turn backhand topper or slice, and deft touch around the net, Henin may be eye candy on court, but she is a tough nut to crack off court. Henin’s mother died when she was 12 and she has been estranged for more than a year from her father, Jose, who she says had too much influence on her career.  She answers questions with machine-gun quick responses; often short and  to the point. But she has tremendous inner strength and fight, which allowed her to overcome her choke to Kim Clijsters in the Roland Garros semis and reach the Wimbledon final.

Henin can’t control match
However, the 5-foot-6, 125 pound Henin still hasn’t learned to stick with a winning strategy or completely tame her on-court wildness. She failed to jump on Venus’ attackable second serves in the first set and was in a decent position going into the third set but when she began to lose her rhythm, instead of easing up in back court and trying to put a few more balls in play, she kept going for broke and missing. “Today I proved – not all the match – but during one set that size doesn’t matter,”  said Henin, who has leapt up the rankings from 100 last year to  No. 5  “Great champions are tough. Maybe it’s another level because you know Williams, Capriati, Davenport, they’re very strong. But I think I have the game to win these matches.” 

On the other hand, Venus was the mark of cool consistency, patiently stepping up to the service line, concentrating hard on where she would place her returns and only going for outright winners when she had a short or midcourt ball.  “I think Centre Court is going to be a great place for me for years to come,” said Venus, who rose to  No. 2 in he rankings, still a long way from Hingis, but with a chance to overtake the declining Swiss in the fall.

The question for Venus — who has won three tournaments this year but who has only competed in eight events — is whether she will play enough to earn enough points to reach the top. Is being No. 1 a priority for a woman who just tied U.S. legend Tracy Austin with three Slams titles and is looking more and more like a Hall of Fame player? “It’s on the top list now. Maybe in the past, it wasn’t. Grand Slams definitely are No. 1. Then No. 2, for sure, is No. 1,” Venus laughed. “Oh, boy, like a Dr. Seuss book.  I have to make it a priority. I have to play more. Either that or I have to win every Grand Slam, which is not easy.” Well, at least off of grass.