Venus takes a new approach

Special to The Times

PARIS -- Suddenly here's Venus Williams, 27, with an aura that is just about cheery at this moment, looking as if she'll stay right here on the tennis landscape for the foreseeable horizon.

Martina Hingis has gone, Kim Clijsters has gone, Justine Henin has gone, Amelie Mauresmo seems tilted that way, and somehow it's as if Williams, three weeks from 28, routinely playing relative youngsters, might only be getting started in some sense.

She's dreaming up fresh incarnations of herself.

Whatever happens here at the French Open, by results her hardest major, the reigning Wimbledon champion stoked the imagination with her second-round match by frequenting the net and then talking about how she wanted to continue to frequent the net.

The statistics sheet, however imperfect, showed her net-bound 35 times and winning 24 points on Thursday against the smiling Tunisian Selima Sfar, and Williams' post-match comments, while not unprecedented in her long career, sounded giddy with experiment.

"I just really feel comfortable at the net, and I don't know why," she said. "I just do. I like it up there, so I do try to get there when I can, and I just like being at the net. It's just finally kicked in. I should always have been there years ago, but now I just like it and I'm just there and I feel good there."

It's comical to think that after Billie Jean King, among others, for years urged the 6-foot-1 Williams toward the net (while she has stayed mostly back to win six Grand Slam tournaments) that she now has a hankering to take it up.

For one thing, it could abet longevity, with Martina Navratilova the foremost evidence, and Williams certainly seems intent on longevity, and really now, who knew? Weren't Venus and her sister Serena the ones maddeningly unfocused when it came to tennis?

Now they're a case for well-roundedness, another new incarnation that shows on one of Venus Williams' ring fingers. There, she wears her class ring that marks her degree, secured late last year, from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

"Took me eight years," she told a TV crew Thursday as she showed it, "so I wanted it to be big, like a Super Bowl ring."

The last class, she said, almost made her take a hiatus. "So I just did it because I like a challenge, and plus once I started I had to finish. And of course because I wanted to be in fashion, so I wanted to finish, so that way I could use my new expertise."

On the institute's website, Andre West, chair of the fashion programs, said, "She has taken that same drive that she shows on the court all the way to the cutting table, sewing machine and computer. We will miss seeing her smiling face in the hallways; the faculty, the staff and students have enjoyed having such a mellow, unassuming superstar in our presence."

She has her own clothing line and at the moment admires Tom Ford among designers. It's only one story, but it's as if Henin's mid-May retirement suddenly made it vogue to speak as Williams does when she said of tennis, "You can really lose your identity in it."

Even her announced hiatus didn't last, and she said, "I never go into detail about what's bothering me, ever really, even if it costs me matches. So I'm still not going to, but I do feel a lot better."

And as a Compton kid turned formidable young woman watches rivals bow out around her, she demonstrates zero interest in any gloating about any wisdom in the approach she always took.

"Everyone's life is different, and I think all of us are wise enough at this point to know that you never know what the next person is going through behind closed doors," Williams said. "So I think those girls made the best decision for women, for themselves.

"My decision to be on tour is the ultimate decision and the ultimate blessing, and I love it here, even if, you know, it doesn't go the way I want."



French Open

A look at Day 5 of the French Open and a look ahead to today's competition (world rankings in parentheses):


Venus Williams (7) -- If she really means it about coming to the net more, it could make for some exhilarating watching, which we'll get after she won, 6-2, 6-4, over a 241st-ranked Tunisian, Selima Sfar, who derived joy from just being there.

Roger Federer (1) -- Played in drizzle. Had delay. Lost set. Got peeved. Beat 60th-ranked Spaniard Albert Montanes, 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-0, 6-4.

Other winners: Rafael Nadal (2), Jelena Jankovic (3), Elena Dementieva (8).


James Blake (8) -- On the occasion of his second-round, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, loss to the onrushing 19-year-old Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, Blake used the loss to cattily second-guess his second-guessers, claiming he'd played as commentators long recommended but it hadn't worked. Yeah, that's the way to prove 'em wrong.

Other losers: Anna Chakvetadze (6), David Nalbandian (7.


Serena Williams (5) vs. Katarina Srebotnik (24) -- They had a three-set fracas in Charleston last month.

Maria Sharapova (2) vs. Bethanie Mattek (106) -- They finished their Thursday night bout with Sharapova leading, 6-2, 2-3, but spraying shots and begging for darkness when last seen.

Venus Williams (7) vs. Flavia Pennetta (30) -- Well, she's at it again, two days in a row, this time with a foe who helps Williams with her Italian. Maybe she'll learn the Italian words for "I want to get to the net more."

-- Chuck Culpepper

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