Venus is fit and back in fashion again

PARIS -- Everything old is new again on the women's tour. Justine Henin and Serena Williams are heading for a quarterfinals clash at the French Open. Jelena Jankovic is revitalized, and fellow Serb Ana Ivanovic is looking promising. Venus Williams, for the first time in years, is a title contender at a Slam outside Wimbledon, and Maria Sharapova is doing her best gritty cow-on-ice impression in Paris.

It's like the summer of 2006 all over again.

Are we in a time warp? Or did the black hole Henin opened when she retired two years ago close with her return to the tour this season?

"It's true that not a lot of things have changed," Henin said after winning her first match back at the French Open on Tuesday. "Before I stopped and now, it's almost the same players."

But looking at the before and after doesn't capture the turmoil in between -- the vacuum created by Henin's sudden departure led to five No. 1s in five months. While Serena Williams quickly produced some semblance of order at the Grand Slams, player after player rose to the top only to go into free fall for mental or physical reasons (or both) -- Jankovic, Ivanovic, Sharapova, Dinara Safina.

But the wheel now seems to be turning back, and none has returned to the fore more quietly than Venus Williams. While younger sister Serena Williams has made loud statements at the majors and Henin and Kim Clijsters have made splashy comebacks, Venus has quietly been posting solid results and even leads the year-to-date points race on the WTA Tour.

And she has taken aim at the same spot in the rankings as well. "Everybody wants to be No. 1, especially me, because I'm closer than most of the other players on the tour," she said with a laugh after her first-round win in Paris. "Day in, day out, all the hours that I put in, everyone puts in, when you get to the top of the rankings it's definitely a pat on the back."

Getting there would make Venus, nearly 30, the oldest No. 1 since Martina Navratilova. A win at the French Open or U.S. Open later this year would be her first Grand Slam title outside Wimbledon since 2001.

But at the same time, her results this year have been up-and-down: She went undefeated in February and March, but looked hobbled while getting blitzed in the Miami final and then suffered the worst loss of her career in Rome, winning just one game against Jankovic.

"It was cold" was the only explanation she offered when asked about the lopsided defeat this week. "I'm a Florida girl."

The Florida girl then made the final in cold and damp Madrid the following week.

Enigmatic results and explanations make it difficult to judge how far Venus can go at this year's French Open, but consistent performances would make her half of the draw very navigable.

After winning the Dubai event in February, Venus was unusually forthcoming about her physical and mental state.

"I really had a hard time last year with my fitness," she said, having played with her knee heavily bandaged from Wimbledon onward. "I have no huge, horrible strap. I hated that thing.

"I learned how to manage my pain better. So it took a while, and I feel better that I'm able to manage it and figure out how to feel better."

Though she has appeared to suffer more injuries since then, Venus described the difference that being fully fit makes in her level of play. "Sometimes I get to some shots quicker than I thought," she said at Dubai. "I'm going for a slice and I hit a full shot and I'm like, 'Oh, it's getting faster.' It's so exciting. It was just a curve on how to really manage playing and pain level, and keep swelling down.

"I usually don't talk about my injuries this much. But I'm starting to feel better, and I'm excited about it. Maybe that's why I'm talking about it."

Her current cheerful mood is a signal that things are going well and there are no nagging physical problems. As legend has it, the Williamses' father, Richard, saw the prize-giving ceremony at a women's tennis tournament and decided to have two more daughters whom he would make play tennis. Asked earlier this week if that story had inspired her, Venus joked, "Inspire me to get more cash?"

What's more, she has almost single-handedly brought back the fashion focus on women's tennis. After causing a stir by wearing flesh-colored underwear at the Australian Open -- on television, it looked like she was going bare -- she unveiled see-through underwear in Paris, resulting in some X-rated photos when she moved up to hit an overhead.

Explaining her self-designed lingerie-style line, Venus said, "The outfit is about illusion, and that's been a lot of my motif this year.

"It's about, obviously, lace and kind of having that illusion of wearing lace and not having anything taken away under it, the nude fabric."

It's been a long time since deciphering that kind of fashion talk was a mandatory part of the first week of a Grand Slam. Who knows? Maybe it's a sign that it's soon going to be 2001 all over again.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.