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Venus Williams could be all that stands in the way of an ugly American fortnight at U.S. Open

With her sister Serena sidelined by injury, Venus is the only U.S. woman among the 32 seeded players at the Open. And she could be rusty, having not played a competitive match since Wimbledon, two months ago.

August 29, 2010|By Diane Pucin

Reporting from New York — It is a question that makes Venus Williams weary.

Her eyes drop, her shoulders tighten. She is here at the U.S. Open, which begins Monday, a 30-year-old with the major accomplishment of having won seven Grand Slam tournaments, and she does not want to talk about the starkness of this bit of information:

Williams is the only American woman among the 32 seeded players.

Melanie Oudin, the bubbly teenager who giggled as she ran through the 2009 U.S. Open, shoving aside higher-ranked, harder-hitting players with no evidence of nerves until she was halted in the quarterfinals by eventual runner-up Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, has won only a single match at the three previous major tournaments this year and comes to the Open unseeded, with a ranking of 43 and a dangerous first-round match at 8 a.m. PDT Monday against a tricky veteran, Olga Savchuk.

Williams, who is seeded third behind Wozniacki and defending champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium, hasn't hit a competitive tennis shot since June 29 at Wimbledon while tending to a crankily sore knee. So she is not prone to analyzing what is wrong with American women's tennis. "I just think about my own match," she said.

But she did offer this: "In the past we've had such a great tradition of American players who did well. To have that missing is a void for us. I don't know if we have a system down for getting that talent and following it through in America. In the meantime, Serena and I continue to play well."

Actually Serena Williams, Venus' younger sister, isn't playing at all in New York. After winning Wimbledon, her second major title of the year, she suffered a cut foot that needed surgery, and she's now targeting Tokyo next month for her return to tennis.

But here in New York, where Americans love to cheer for their own, the women's draw is missing any title contenders other than Venus, who has won the event twice but not since 2001.

The main draw includes 12 American women, but only four — Venus, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Vania King and Jill Craybas — got in without either qualifying or receiving a wild card.

Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Connors, a star in the 1970s and early '80s when it was a given American men and women would dominate the pro tours, says it isn't for Venus Williams or any other American, man or woman, to feel burdened by American expectations. But he also says it's well past time to panic about the lack of American contenders for major titles.

"We should have been worrying about this a long time ago," Connors said.

Len DeLuca, senior vice president of programming for ESPN, said it was a duty for his network to get the U.S. tennis fan interested in the women's draw beyond the Williams sisters.

He compared that job to the days when baseball needed to pump up all the other teams while the New York Yankees were going 18 years between World Series titles.

"We need to dig deep and make the [other American players] interesting or provocative or entertaining as possible and try to steer our audience into having a great appreciation for these up-and-coming players," DeLuca said.

Other than Venus, the biggest names in the women's draw are Clijsters, whose winning hug with her toddler daughter in Arthur Ashe Stadium helped erase the ugliness of Serena's threatening and obscenity-laced outburst toward a female line judge during their semifinal last year; and 14th-seeded Maria Sharapova of Russia, who does have three major championships (including the U.S. Open in 2006), and had $23.5 million in endorsements in 2009 according to Forbes magazine, more than any female athlete in the world. Wozniacki is ranked No. 2 in the world but lacks major name recognition in this country.

As ESPN analyst Mary Carillo put it, any tournament without Serena in the draw is "everybody else's best shot."

And, Carillo said, "Venus is just a big question mark, coming in cold."

Former men's U.S. Open champion and ESPN analyst John McEnroe said of Venus, "It seems as if she's obviously winging it, but if ever there's a time for the draw to be open for her, this is it. There are a lot of players not playing with the same level of confidence or who are unsure of their games or who are not up to recent form. If Venus is healthy, if she's ever going to win anything again, this might be it."

Whatever the rest of the world thinks about her chances, Venus just offers a smile and bland politeness.

"I don't think about that," she said. "I just think about my next match."

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