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Williams pushes, but not enough

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 8, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England -- We see her and her athleticism is as obvious as an elephant hiding under a bed. We see her power and her quickness, a combination of which has rarely been seen in the women's game.

We see her traveling the globe, winning majors at an age when many of her peers haven't even decided on one. We see her potential and gasp at the incalculable possibilities that lie ahead.

We see all of this and can't help but wonder one thing: Just how good could Venus Williams become if she gave tennis everything she had?

What if she put her pursuit of a fashion design degree on hold and gave tennis her undivided attention? What if she changed her attitude about the game and became a fitness maniac, specifically developing a body that's more impervious to injury?

What if?

This is what invariably will run through fans' minds today as Williams wrestles Justine Henin for the Wimbledon singles title -- weather permitting, of course. It's what, in fact, often creeps into the consciousness whenever Williams plays.

What if?

As it is, she is frightfully talented. You won't find a better engineered body without a Rolls Royce emblem on the hood.

She was built for this game, those long arms that can seemingly cover the entire court and the doubles alleys on the next one over, too. That serve that's arguably the most lethal in the history of women's tennis, clocked at a WTA Tour-record 127 mph last year. And that speed and heart and cleverness and all the attributes that make great players great.

She won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and an Olympic gold medal among 17 tour titles, and rose to as high as No. 2 in the world rankings before she was of legal drinking age. It's arguably the best record of any active player at that age.

But is it Williams' best?

We don't know because we haven't seen all of her. She missed the first four months of last season because of tendinitis in her wrists, and she has limited her schedule this year because of tendinitis in her right knee.

She withdrew after the semifinals of an important tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., this spring because of the knee, and missed the Chase Championships, which takes only the best of the best, in 1998 and last year because of an injury or an illness.

And remember how she had Martina Hingis beat in the deciding third set of the 1999 U.S. Open semifinals, but lost because she cramped up?

Anybody who knows a half volley from a drop volley will tell you that injury prevention starts with fitness. And we all know Williams would rather watch paint dry than work on her game.

"I think that if I practice more then maybe I would have had a better part of this year," she said the other day. "Sometimes it's hard to practice because I get a little bored with practicing. It's not always fun."

Well, duh.

You know what else isn't always fun? Looking back on your career 10 years from now and realizing you left a whole lot on the table. Trust me, you don't wish that on anyone, especially not someone with boundless potential like Williams.

Awfully few people are blessed with the instincts and athleticism to play this game the way she does. Lindsay Davenport, a considerable talent, could train all day and never move with as much grace and fluidity as Williams.

What a shame it would be to leave so much fruit unharvested. It'd be a loss for us, Williams and the sport in general.

It's probably just as well that Williams doesn't train with the incessant approach of Martina Navratilova or Jim Courier. As phenomenal as she is now, she would be downright scary. She would swiftly gather up this tour and hold it in her hands with the mischievous grin of a Cheshire cat.

Who could seriously challenge her then? Maybe only her sister, Serena.

It could still happen one day. She's only 21 and, as former President Bill Clinton said Saturday while awaiting the rain-postponed women's final here, "Her mind for the game appears to be about to catch up with her breathtaking athletic skills."

What if the light flips on one day and she makes up her mind to give it a try, to press the accelerator to the floor and see just where she tops out?

What if?

Perhaps the only question more intriguing is, what if she doesn't?

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