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Williams Wants to Forget Her First Trip to Wimbledon

Tennis: After first-round loss in '97, she is seeded sixth and is optimistic about her chances.

June 21, 1998|STEPHEN WILSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WIMBLEDON, England — As Venus Williams prepares for her second Wimbledon appearance, don't bother asking about her first. As far as she's concerned, it never happened.

"I just want to make an official statement that I was not at Wimbledon last year," Williams says. "I did not play. I was never there. This will be my first Wimbledon and I'm really looking forward to it."

You can't blame her for wanting to forget.

Last June, she waited through five days of rain delays before getting on court for her first-round match against an unknown Polish player named Magdalena Grzybowkska.

Williams looked uncomfortable on the grass, dropped seven straight games in one stretch, served 10 double faults and lost, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Williams, who turned 18 last Wednesday, returns this year seeded sixth and one of the hottest properties in women's tennis. She's joined by 16-year-old sister Serena, who is truly playing her first Wimbledon.

With their beaded hair, imposing physiques and powerful games (Venus hits serves of 120 mph), the sisters have become star attractions wherever they play.

Yet for all the progress Venus has made since last year, the early signs are that she may have trouble again.

In her only grass-court match this season, she was trounced, 6-2, 6-1, by doubles specialist Natasha Zvereva at the Eastbourne tournament this week.

Williams again showed her inexperience on grass. She rarely came to the net and was confounded by Zvereva's off-speed slice.

"I think it's pretty sad that I had to lose, but I have to move on from this and learn from it," Williams said. "I have to start out faster and play hard from the very beginning. But sometimes it's good to lose so you can learn. You learn more from when you lose than when you win."

Williams has been winning a lot lately. Ranked No. 204 in the world at the start of 1997, she reached the U.S. Open final--losing to Martina Hingis--and finished the year at No. 22.

Of the eight tournaments she has played this year, she won two and reached the final in two others. She made the quarterfinals of the French Open, again losing to Hingis.

Williams' goal now is to capture her first Grand Slam title.

"I'm definitely ready to win, no doubt," she said.

But doubts remain as to whether she can adapt her game to the subtleties of grass and the wet and windy conditions so often associated with Wimbledon.

"Some days Venus can be a force and others she can be a completely different person," Serena said of her sister after the Eastbourne defeat. "I eradicated that tendency a long time ago. I concentrate properly on the surface involved, which is something Venus is struggling to do."

Serena has emerged as a force herself, rising to No. 22 in the world in her first full year on the tour, and could be dangerous at Wimbledon. Making her grass-court debut at Eastbourne, Serena won her first two matches in straight sets over Naoko Sawamatsu and Ai Sugiyama.

The Williams sisters have played each other twice, at this year's Australian Open and Italian Open, with Venus winning both matches. There is a chance they could meet in the fourth round at Wimbledon, but Serena could have to beat fellow teen stars Mirjana Lucic and Anna Kournikova to get that far.

The sisters are accompanied by their mother, Oracene, who's sporting a cast after breaking her left ankle in a fall at the Wimbledon house the family is renting.

Coach and father Richard Williams is back home, Serena says, "taking care of my dogs."

Dad will surely consider traveling to London if one of his daughters closes in on the title.

Venus, for one, can see it happening.

"My chances are a lot better than they were last year," she said. "I couldn't win it last year, remember, because I wasn't playing."

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