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Venus of old resurfaces

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Venus Williams currently looks like the Venus Williams of old as she prepares for the upcoming French Open, one of two Grand Slam events the American superstar has yet to win.

Venus had recently almost become a forgotten woman on the WTA Tour, with the emergence her powerful little sister Serena and the two-headed Belgian monster that is Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters.

But after going titleless for 14 months, the former world No. 1 finally broke through with a big win in Charleston three weeks ago, and she followed up her clay-court Family Circle Cup championship with another big victory in Warsaw last week, beating rising Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the final at the clay-court J&S Cup.

Venus Williams
Venus Williams has won her last 11 matches, including titles in Charleston and Warsaw.
The 6-foot-1 Venus shook off a nagging leg injury in order to get her current streak going, as the four-time Grand Slam champ is now red-hot with an 11- match winning streak, her best victory string since rattling off 19 in a row in 2002.

Last year, of course, Venus was slowed by injuries, most notably an abdominal strain suffered in, oddly enough, Warsaw that plagued her for the better part of the '03 season, one that actually ended for her when she lost to Serena in a second straight all-Williams Wimbledon final in early July. Her hiatus wound up knocking her out of the top 10 for the first time since March 1998.

The Wimbledon setback also marked her fifth loss in six Grand Slam event finals against Serena, who also didn't play any tennis after Wimbledon last year due to a knee injury that required surgery in August.

Venus struggled early upon her return this year, starting with the Australian Open back in January when she failed to reach the quarters (third-round loss) in Melbourne for the first time in her brilliant career.

Following the Aussie Open, Venus went a pedestrian 2-2 over her next two events, including a walkover (non-playing) loss against fellow American Chanda Rubin in a scheduled quarterfinal in Tokyo.

Venus then reached the quarterfinals at the prestigious Nasdaq-100 Open in Miami, only to lose to talented Russian Elena Dementieva in three hard-fought sets.

Since that disappointing setback against Dementieva, however, Venus has compiled her 11-match dash, including a pair of Fed Cup wins in Slovenia last month.

Now I don't mean to steal any of Venus' thunder here, but she hasn't beaten a top-10 star during her recent run. As a matter of fact, she's only played one top-10 performer all year, and that resulted in a loss at the hands of the capable Dementieva. So, to me, she's not "all the way back" until she beats an Henin-Hardenne, a Clijsters, a Mauresmo...a Serena!

In all fairness to Venus, her victory over Kuznetsova last week was like a win against a top-10er, as the young Russian has been certifiably hot this year, having reached three finals and posting huge victories over both the reigning Australian, U.S. and French Open champion Henin-Hardenne and Venus, who gave way to Kuznetsova in a quarterfinal bout in Dubai.

The 23-year-old Venus practically owned the sport of women's tennis a few years ago, piling up her four Slam titles in a six-event stretch from 2000-01. She reached four straight Wimbledon finals (2-2), three consecutive U.S. Open title matches (2-1), a French Open final (0-1) and an Aussie Open title match (0-1) over the first four years of the decade. Prior to 2000, her lone Grand Slam final appearance came at the 1997 U.S. Open, where she succumbed to fellow former world No. 1 Martina "Swiss Miss" Hingis.

Venus, who still owns the WTA Tour record for fastest serve (127 mph in 1998), is hitting the ball like she did when she was on top of the sport. Her career titles currently rest at 31, good for 14th (tied with Olga Morozova) on the all-time list, and her all-important career prize money is roughly $13.5 million.

How will Venus fare at the upcoming French Open (starts May 24)? Probably not too bad, since J H-H has been slowed by a viral infection, Clijsters is still on the mend from a wrist injury, Mauresmo is always hurt, and Serena has been taking some time off to rest her sore knee. Venus will also need to keep her eye on a resurgent Lindsay Davenport, who's a sizzling 22-3 with a pair of titles this season.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley


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