By: Jane Voigt
Venus Williams is in it for the long haul. Wait a minute. She is the long haul. And this week, the 34-year-old American veteran is back in Dubai to defend her title.
On Monday night, she defeated rising Swiss Belinda Bencic – a teenager half her age, 6-1, 6-2 – and had this to say: “I haven’t played her since the French. I think she’s improved since then. She makes you hit a lot of balls.”
The World No. 11’s comments to the press would make you think she’s at the start of her career, digging for efficient strategies and actively adding more shots to her repertoire. She has to; the competition has only intensified over her two-decade-long career.
“I think my strategy is a lot better than even five or six years ago,” she said. “And, you know, I’ve added another shot to my game in the last few months, with my backhand slice.”
The defensive shot is not something she’ll rely on – she is one of the two original baseline power players along with little sister, Serena. But the slice adds variety and can change the dynamic of a point.
The little things have become important in a game determined by a couple points.
Her walloping of Bencic says lots about those little things she continues to bring to the court. Moving from talk of strategy and shot selection to comments about leading young, hungry players, Williams now wears two hats equally. She’s a woman eager for more titles, prepared to set an example for youngsters like Bencic.
Coached by Melanie Molitor, Bencic’s style resembles Molitor’s daughter Martina, only the upstart hits with more power. Though she has not approached what the original Swiss Miss achieved at 16, she did become the highest ranked teen this week at No. 37.
“[Belinda]’s hopefully benefitting from that relationship because Martina was one of a kind and still is on the doubles court,” Williams began. “You can tell Belinda wants to play well, so hopefully [her relationship] will be something that will work out for her. It will be great for tennis and Swiss tennis.”
The presence of the elder Williams continues to be great for tennis, as well. Seeded No. 8 in Dubai, she is at her highest ranking in five years.
Although she remains committed, she admitted she hasn’t “spent a ton of time on the practice court.”
“I stopped practicing twice a day when I was about 20 or 21,” she said. “That could possibly be a part of longevity, as well, because the more hours you put in the body, it’s not normal to hit, you know, a thousand forehands a day. So I think as you start to get older, if you want to have a longer career, then you’ve got to start thinking about quality over quantity.”
This is Venus’s seventh appearance in the United Arabs Emirates’ tournament, after her inaugural visit in 2002. That year she played a long-since retired trio of Anna Kournikova, Anastasia Myskina and Sandrine Testud, who beat her in the semifinal. The winner, Amelie Mauresmo, took home $93,000. When Williams took the title last year, she earned $471,841. In the last six years, she has won the title three times: 2009, 2010, and 2014.
That level of longevity is, indeed, remarkable. Less time on a practice court could be one reason, but she also is grateful to her parents.
“Genetics,” she told the press. “Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad.”
Her height can be viewed as a weakness, when it’s linked to movement: “As a tall person it’s easy for me to get slow if I don’t work on it. I don’t let that happen, so I’m constantly working on my agility and my movement.”
After a bright start to the season – winning Auckland, reaching her first major quarterfinal since 2010, and leading Team USA through a World Group II tie against Argentina – she could probably use a rest. She does not plan to play Indian Wells, which she hasn’t visited since 2001 for well-documented reasons.
“I’ve gotta go home, and, you know, there is only a little bit of time and then you have to start training,” she said. “So, I’m going to go ahead and take care of myself and rest.”
Both Williams’ sisters skipped the normal career route, eliminating junior tennis, a rough and lengthy journey many kids tire of and see no benefit from, their dreams never coming to fruition.
“I was talking to Mary Joe [Fernandez] at Fed Cup and she said, yeah, if she didn’t play as many juniors, she feels like she could have played a bit longer.”
The strain on the mind over a number of years can also negatively effect a player, Venus said.
According to the WTA, Venus’s first career match was in Oakland, Calif, in October, 1994. She lost in the second round of a 32-person draw to Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain. Venus pocketed $5,350 and earned 27 ranking points.
As of today, Williams has 46 career titles; and, she’d like it to read 47 come Sunday in Dubai.