2 July 2008

What do we do about Venus Williams? No, not beating or even getting a set off her, although that is clearly a sizeable problem which yesterday’s Thai opponent, Tamarine Tanasugarn, has now failed to crack in seven attempts. The problem is why can’t we like her a bit more?

Venus is, of course, an extraordinary athlete. It’s just that when compared to the players at the other side of the net, she is rather too extraordinary. The 31-year-old Tanasugarn has won $2.3 million in her 12-year career, was voted Thailand Female Athlete of the Year as long ago as 1996 and was yesterday becoming the first Thai player to make a grand slam quarter-final. But at 5ft 5in and 10st, she was seven inches shorter and 20lb lighter than the four-times Wimbledon champion. She was serving around 85mph, Williams at 120mph.

Somehow it just did not seem quite fair. The sixth game of the first set said everything. Williams was serving to lead 5-3 having broken Tanasugarn twice but having been broken herself in the fourth. Tanasugarn’s game plan was to hustle everything, scurrying up and down the baseline with desperate little grunts of effort. Six times, admittedly twice aided by double faults, she got to break point on the Williams service. Six times, Williams battered her out of it. Clinching things with first a 125mph, then a 126mph service. Crikey, most of the men cannot serve as fast as that.

It was not very charitable but in these circum-stances the mind tended to wonder if something might go wrong for Williams. Apart from the form book, which showed that 6-2, 6-4 (in the first round of the 2004 French Open) was the best that Tanasugarn had ever done, it was crashingly obvious that only a Williams injury or technical collapse could change the inevitability of the outcome.

True, Williams was to complain of a hamstring strain; true her first serves once or twice hit the bottom of the net, and the biggest cheer was when Tanasugarn won a spirited rally at the close of the first set to get back to 30 all. But Williams was better and a whole lot bigger than the slight but feisty figure on the other side. After spending her first week playing herself in, she now needs to find some-one her own size. Only her sister, Serena, looks like fulfilling that.

Afterwards Williams said how “amazing” it would be to play Serena again in the final, before which she faces the Russian, Elena Dementieva. In the interview room, Williams, the biggest girl on the playground refusing to allow the others a chance to win the trophies, became the smiling, almost simpering, figure, dipping her head coyly as interviewers showered her with praise before lobbing up a pat ball of a question.

It’s all pretty syrupy stuff. “I’m very happy and blessed as a person in my life,” she said in the softest tones. “I think that just to be happy and healthy enough to be here playing, that’s really what it’s about.” One answer was a lot more convincing. “I really expect that of myself,” she said of her ability in crisis. “Just on those break points, you’ve got to play better. So I’m really blessed to have a serve to get me out of those issues.”

Suddenly, we had bit more than sloppy banalities. A champion talking of her talent in the third person. She is an astonishing player but she needs something more than a practice partner to make this championship interesting too.

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