Shortly after Venus Williams won Wimbledon in 2005, a victory that ended a three-plus-year stretch without a major title, Richard Williams proudly told reporters that his daughter had a lot of good years left in her, probably more than her sister Serena. Though Venus was the older sister, Mr. Williams thought she would age well, largely because she was a superior athlete to the rest of the women on the tour.
By 2008, when Venus won her third Wimbledon title in four years, her father's prediction seemed spot on. For my money, he's still right: Venus, physically, is a lot younger than her 29 years. She's still faster than anyone on the tour, still more powerful, and still more agile. She is the best athlete in women's tennis, with the recently unretired Kim Clijsters finishing a close second.
Why, then, can't she win a match these days? If you watched Williams' dismal performance against Elena Dementieva on Tuesday at the season-ending championships in Doha, Qatar, you'd have some idea. Physically, she's capable of anything. Mentally, she's capable of little. She has no confidence.
The telltale signs of a tired mind were everywhere in Tuesday's match. After a solid first set, Williams scored an early break in the second set. Then she played tense tennis, missing too many backhands (normally her more reliable stroke) and losing speed and depth on her serve. Still, she broke Dementieva again and had a chance to serve out the match at 6-5. Dementieva hung on and took a 6-3 lead in the tiebreaker. From there we were treated to vintage Williams, circa Wimbledon 2005: lots of running, sharp angles, and no mistakes. She tied the score at 6-6. After that? The not-so-vintage Williams took over: She missed a routine backhand and double-faulted to lose the set. She quickly lost the first four games of the third set, missing backhands, going for too much early in rallies and failing to approach the net, which worked well earlier in the match, the few times she bothered to try it. When she missed an easy forehand in the final game, Williams held her fingers to her head in the shape of a gun and pulled the trigger. The self-destruction continued on the next point, when she shanked a forehand 10 feet past the baseline. Dementieva easily served out the match. (How's that for a sentence rarely written?)
If you're a Williams fan in search of a cause for her recent poor play, look no further than her flat performance in the Wimbledon final, which she lost to Serena. Since then, Venus is 9-7, and she has now lost three of her past four matches, two of them to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a promising but unpolished 18-year-old. Since Wimbledon, Williams has reached one tournament final and otherwise had more success as her sister's doubles partner than as a singles player. Before Tuesday, Williams had beaten Dementieva six straight times.
What can Williams do to break out of this slump? She has been an unpredictable player for much of her career, and her confidence might well return in time for the Australian Open, or even this event, which she won last year. More and more, Williams looks like a player who needs a change, whether it's a new voice on her coaching team, a new strategy (volley more?), or a new approach to training. As James Blake recently discovered, change for the sake of change can be positive, even if it reveals that you ought to stick with what you were doing in the first place (at least then you can continue down the same path with confidence). Williams has the athleticism to play top-level tennis into her 30s and accomplish a lot more (on the short list: win her first Australian Open and her first U.S. Open since 2001). She doesn't have much time, though, to figure out how she's going to do it.