Despite titles, Venus standing in Serena’s shadow

Venus Williams is nothing but enigmatic on the court — at times powerful and lethal in between the lines and at other times, unsure of herself and vulnerable.

Off court, she’s much the same — serious yet goofy, sometimes quiet and introverted, but at others times, she’s the beaming life of the party.

Though whether she’s forceful or light hearted, barring an unforeseen development, her baby sister Serena will end her career with more Grand Slam titles than the 29-year-old Venus will, a somewhat surprising development considering that after winning back-to-back titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000-2001, the then-more self-confident Venus had four major titles to just one from Serena.

Today, the 27-year-old Serena stands taller with 11 Slam crowns while the 29-year-old Venus owns seven — a terrific achievement — but one that falls short of her sister’s accomplishments.

Just ahead of this week’s Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, where she is the second seed behind Serena, Venus told that it wouldn’t bother her if Serena ended her career with more majors than she did.

“I don’t compare myself to anyone and I don’t think I should have to,” Venus said.

Serena agreed: “We’re crazy and we’re not involved too much in numbers. Now I want to do really good against Billie Jean King (who holds 12 Grand Slam titles) because I have the chance. Before I didn’t have the goal. I’m just playing to satisfy myself and be happy.”

During 2000-2001, Venus was the talk of the circuit, blowtorching huge serves, crushing backhands down the line, out-legging her opponents and staring down anyone who thought they could hang with her on fast surfaces.

But then Serena found her groove, became a more consistent player from the backcourt and established a more forceful forehand. While she’s never served quite as fast as the speed record holder Venus, she developed a more consistently effective serve. Serena also was more aggressive in her return games, and after she completed her “Serena Slam” in 2002-2003, she had remarkably beaten Venus in four straight Slam finals and held five majors to Venus’ four.

Serena hasn’t looked back, and while Venus has picked up another three Wimbledon titles since then (2005, 2007 and 2008), she hasn’t been able to leap over her sister. Every time that Venus has made a Grand Slam charge and gotten closer to her sister — like after she won Wimbledon in 2008 and was only one Slam crown behind Serena — the younger Williams grew more motivated and put distance in between them.

Since falling to Venus in the 2008 Wimbledon, Serena has soared above the rest of the tour at the majors, winning the 2008 U.S. Open and 2009 Australian Open and then last month besting her sister 7-6 (3), 6-2 in Venus’ home away from home, Wimbledon Centre Court, for her 11th Slam. Serena now holds an 11-10 edge in their rivalry.

“Of course I wanted to win but I didn’t,” Venus said. “It’s hard to always play your best, but I tried my best and I have to leave it at that. I still take my losses hard, but if I’m going to be upset, it’s going to be somewhere outside of press. I don’t have a bad attitude, that’s not me. I don’t smash rackets. Tough losses are going to be with you for a while, but the important thing is to move on and there’s always another opportunity.”

Venus’ career curve has a clear marker. Since tearing her abdominal muscle in the 2003 Wimbledon semis against Kim Clijsters, she has won only two outdoor hard court titles: the 2008 Sony Ericsson WTA Championships and 2009 Dubai. She hasn’t won a U.S. Open Series summer hardcourt title since 2002, when she won Stanford, San Diego, New Haven and reached the U.S. Open final before Serena finally stopped her brilliant run.

For a woman who was weaned on the hardcourts of Compton, Calif., and South Florida, she’s surprised she hasn’t won a U.S. Open in seven years.

“Totally, but what can I say?” said Venus, who has only managed to win 12 of her 41 career titles since her 2003 Wimbledon injury. “Other than that, things have gone pretty well. I’m grateful for all my good results, and I’ve learned from my losses. I definitely want to move forward.”

While it’s fair to say that it’s been Serena who has stopped Venus from being called the best player of her generation, it’s not as if it’s only been her sister who has beaten her in significant hardcourt events.

In 2007, she fell to Maria Sharapova in Miami, to Anna Chakvetadze at San Diego and to Justine Henin in the U.S. Open semis. In 2008, Venus fell to Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open, lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami and to Na Li at the Olympics. At this year’s Australian Open, Carla Suarez Navarro upset her.

However, Serena does own recent big wins on cement over Venus.

At the 2008 U.S. Open, Venus pulled a career first against her sister, but not one that she wanted to write home about — she held 10 set points against Serena (two in first set and eight in second set) and still went down 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7). Venus did batter Serena at the 2008 WTA Championships and won a third set over her in the 2009 Dubai semis, but then Serena won an exhausting three-setter over Venus in Miami.

Venus, however, is not deterred and is hopeful that all the work she’s been doing rounding out the rough edges of her game will come to fruition during the rest of the summer. While she’s not as fast as she used to be, she mixes up her attack with more precision, has a more sound forehand and is arguably the tour’s most effective net player — when she decides to come in.

“I’m going to continue to develop my game, to slice a little more and see how that works and get into the net because it’s nice up there, especially because we are playing more doubles,” she said. “That’s helping my volleys. When I execute my technique, the ball goes in where I want to very effectively. I’m not stubborn. I like to update. I don’t stick with the old. I like to try new things on court and new approaches to training.”

The question on many fans’ minds is whether Venus is as motivated as she was when she roared onto the tour in the late 1990s and nearly won the 1997 U.S. Open crown at the then-tender age of 17. Williams says she is, if not more.

“Life always changes, but I know I want to be here and there’s no where else where I want to be,” she said. “If you are going to be successful, it’s already inside and it’s about how to bring it out and that’s a daily lesson, it’s always changing. You have to find that new thing to make it better. I approach the sport better now, and I’m more educated.”

Venus is fully aware that she has to get her game in tune before she attempts another assault on the U.S. Open. The Stanford field is well-stocked, including not only Serena, but Wimbledon semifinalist Elena Dementieva, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova.

Venus will open play against Canadian wildcard Stephanie Dubois and could face Sharapova in the quarterfinals.

She’s no longer the hyped-up, rail-thin girl who made her debut at the same tournament in November 1994 and stood during the changeovers, but her goals remain much the same.

“To win this tournament and the next and the next and the next,” she said. “I love to win titles.”