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Venus and Roger Raring To Go

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Between them they boast no fewer than nine Wimbledon singles titles, but the buzz surrounding defending champions Venus Williams and Roger Federer ahead of this year’s Championships is rather curious. Williams, seeded seventh, is blithely viewed as a bona fide contender; perhaps as a consequence of years of near perfection, Federer’s time at the top seems to be under harsh review.

Apart from a semi-final showing at Bangalore, Williams’ best performances in her 14-7 win-loss match record this year have been three quarter-final efforts, at the Australian Open, Miami and Rome. But, by virtue of her sometimes surprising exploits at SW19, including Championship wins as the 14th seed in 2005 and 23rd seed last year, nary an eyelid is bat when the four-time champion is mentioned among the very favourites. The fact she hasn’t competed at any lead-in tournaments is also considered of little consequence: Williams has won the title before on the back of similar preparation.

By contrast, Federer’s patchy year has some charging the once invincible Swiss has begun the inevitable decline. True, by his standards, a 37-8 win-loss record is less than stellar, and Federer concedes to being “rattled” by the illness that got his season off to a bad start.

But, upon closer inspection, apart from not winning the Australian Open, this year has not been that different to last: Federer’s match record up to this point in 2007 was 30-5, including a couple of real upsets. Federer won his fifth title at Halle in Germany last week, and was a finalist in three clay court events (Hamburg, Monte Carlo and the French Open). Perhaps the biggest difference was the bruising defeat at the hands of Nadal at Roland Garros a few weeks ago; last year the final in Paris was much closer.

In any case, both champions will put the speculation behind them when they walk through the gates at SW19 for their first matches. “It’s always extremely exciting coming back as the defending champion,” Williams said. “It’s nice to have the memories from last year all kind of flowing into this year. Coming to a tournament where you have a really good record, obviously that gives you confidence.

“But mostly I think about, what is it going to take this year and what will I have to do well this year? How will I have to adjust? How is the grass playing? What challenges do I need to overcome? I just really focus on what’s at hand. There’s really no magic to it. It’s just about playing the best.”

Williams described playing first on Centre Court on Tuesday, the traditional preserve of the holder of the Venus Rosewater Dish, as “the ultimate honour in tennis”. She also won’t be fazed for a beat that her opponent will be a British player, Naomi Cavaday.

“I can’t predict that,” she smiled when asked if she was worried the loyalties of the crowd, usually great supporters of the American, would be split. “The fact that I’m playing a woman from here, I don’t necessarily put that into the equation. Hopefully I have some fans out there who will want to see me bring in the win.”

Of her title chances, Williams added: “I know that I’m gonna have to work for it. I’m willing to pay that price. Ultimately the best player will win. I’m gonna aim for that to be me. I think the grass works for me, so I don’t have to change too much.

“I’m not thinking about my outfit… I’m all about the little yellow ball.”

If Williams wasn’t giving much away about her rivals – “obviously she’s playing well,” she offered of top seed and new world No.1 Ana Ivanovic – it was a subject Federer was less able to avoid. Too much has been whispered and written for that. Indeed, while the Swiss champion insists he is now feeling as good as ever, even the great Bjorn Borg has dared to rate him only his third pick for this year’s title, behind Nadal and the man he beat in a thrilling final at Queen's Club two weeks ago, Novak Djokovic.

Of course, Federer’s grass court winning streak of 59 matches remains intact: the last time he lost on the surface was at The Championships in 2002, when he fell to Mario Ancic in the first round. But the question remains: have his rivals narrowed the gap on his most beloved surface?

“It’s a tough call because we play on grass so little,” Federer said. “I mean, they had a good Queen’s, Rafa and Novak, so it shows they can play on grass. But they didn’t need to prove that to me by playing well there. I saw that last year and the year before and the year before. I know what good players they are.”

Pointing to clay court specialist David Ferrer’s title run on the green stuff in Holland last week as evidence of a shift in the men’s game, Federer added: “Today you see it more and more, that actually guys can play on all surfaces. [Ferrer’s win] maybe wasn’t something that was possible to believe in five or ten years ago.

“Today it’s different. Guys that are on the top, I really feel they can play on all surfaces. Baghdatis, Hewitt, Murray, Roddick, Nalbandian, all these guys are also the favourites again for Wimbledon this year,” Federer said.

And, whatever the naysayers think, Federer still has goals; still rates himself the man to beat this fortnight.

“I think grass really favours my game because of my ability to move, the way I defend, the way I use my shot selection,” he said. “I haven’t lost in such a long time on grass. Obviously my confidence is really, really high. Then again, other players are around, to really challenge me. That only motivates me.

“It’s a huge year for me, going for my sixth. I hope I can also match Pete’s record of seven Wimbledons. That’s what my focus is.” That, and getting his campaign off to a flying start against the Slovak Dominik Hrbaty on opening Monday.

“What other people and players say I cannot control,” Federer said. “Maybe some people talk a little too much sometimes.”

The ultimate man of action has spoken.

Photo Venus and Roger
©AELTC / B. Martin

Photo Venus and Serena
REUTERS/Toby Melville

Posted by Shelia

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