Venus Williams does not “play the game” with the media — or rather, does not play it the way the media would like. Asked how she might approach her US Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters on Friday, she shrugged and retreated behind the sort of clichés that fill wastepaper baskets.
Her tactics? “Win the point.” Nothing special then? “Execute my game.”
Execute might have been the word that crossed the minds of several exasperated questioners, but the American — her country’s last representative at this US Open outside the O’Brien brothers and a boy called Jack Sock in the juniors — draws strength from her stubbornness.
She does not want this match to be a personality contest and she knows well that Clijsters is the darling of the circuit, a walking fairy-tale who came here as a wildcard last year, one month into a comeback after starting a family, and won the title. Although they have played each other 12 times in their careers — with six wins apiece — they are virtual strangers.
“I don’t really know her that well as a person,” Williams said. “I see her around and she always seems pretty pleasant.”
The detachment is not as cold as it sounds. In a world where players are as likely to know a hotel porter as well as an opponent, there is not a lot of time for pleasantries. So there is no animosity, just mutual respect. And after their respective quarterfinals, matches of contrasting quality, neither was giving away much about how they would play the other.
Everyone loves Clijsters. When she became the first mother to win a Grand Slam since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980, her legend was secured. This year the story has not been quite so perfect. She has been struggling with her serve all tournament, suffering more than most with the gusting winds, and her 6-4, 5-7, 6-3 win over the Australian Sam Stosur was functional rather than memorable, a fight against the elements and those parts of her game that did not quite click.
“I didn’t play a good match,” Clijsters admitted. “I said to my coach: ‘Wow, what just happened? How did I win?’ Next match everything will have to be a lot better.”
She does not see a ring-rusty opponent in Williams, who had not played since Wimbledon before coming to New York — but a refreshed one. “The way she has been playing and the way she has looked mentally, it’s maybe been good for her to have been away for that long, because she looks hungrier than ever.”
A vision in pink, fashion queen Williams prepared for her semifinal with the best match of the women’s tournament, an engrossing contest against the Italian Francesca Schiavone, who has not beaten the American in seven attempts. “I like seeing my name against hers,” Williams said later, but she was relieved to get the 7-6, 6-4 win out of the way in just under two hours.
It was probably as good a tune-up for Williams as she could have wanted, as the French Open champion stretched her movement to all parts of the court.
For someone who came to the US Open after nursing a damaged left knee, Williams is in pretty good shape. She is running more freely and has an intensity about her tennis that lesser opponents find intimidating. Schiavone was not intimidated, just outclassed. She kept it close in some brilliant rallies, only to let herself down with the occasional loose shot. Still, there were times when the match could have gone either way.
Clijsters, though, has a richer pedigree than Schiavone. Not only did she win last year against this year’s slow-burning favourite, Caroline Wozniacki, but the former world number one also looks as strong as ever. Her hunger for the game is not diminished and the prospect of reaching the final again is all the incentive she needs.
Number seven seed Vera Zvonareva went through to her first US Open semifinal without fuss, beating Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi 6-3, 7-5. —