March 2, 2010

Not Bad for Two Weeks' Work

It's been a pleasant couple days for Venus Williams.

She began her post-Australian run by defending titles in both Dubai and Acapulco and then returning to New York in an attempt to improve her runner-up showing at last year's Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup.

This was the second year Madison Square Garden hosted the exhibition, featuring four of the best female athletes in the sport -- seven-time Major winner Williams, reigning French Open champ and world #3 Svetlana Kuznetsova, last year's comeback queen Kim Clijsters, and '08 Roland Garros titlist Ana Ivanovic, a replacement for the younger Williams who withdrew with a leg injury.

This was the second tournament I've had the chance to watch at the Garden, and I can honestly say that this city really does bring the best out of these players -- I was immediately amazed by the quality of tennis last night.

Ivanovic, who hasn't been a major force in the sport for quite some time, kicked the night off against Clijsters by breaking the former #1 in her first service game. She even held match point before being forced to a tiebreak, and though she struggled on serve, she certainly showed more than glimpses of the champion she once was. Even still Kim ran away quickly with the decider -- after a much more competitive set than I would have thought -- gaining the first entry to the final.

The next match-up featured Kuznetsova and Williams, a pair who'd split their last eight meetings. Here again the ladies traded breaks to start, but for the next several games both Svets and Venus displayed the kind of tennis that champions are made of -- phenomenal rallies, awesome court coverage and bullet-fast shots that sent the crowd to their feet more than a few times. Ultimately, with a double fault by the Russian that didn't do the set justice, Venus advanced to set up her twelfth career match against Kim.

The final was played in a traditional, best-of-three format and, if I hadn't known better, I'd never have guessed this was "just" an exhibition. Venus got off to a quick start, breaking early in the first and never looking back. She seemed to get in a little trouble with the net, though, and some brilliant shot-making from Kim evened things up in the second.

It looked like momentum had shifted to the Belgian, but the New York fans got behind their girl. With Clijsters leading 4-2, Williams pulled even and had a chance to break for the tournament. Finally after three hard-fought sets, Venus captured the Billie Jean King Cup, her third trophy in as many weeks.

From start to finish it was a tournament that lived up to the hype -- the crowd, the players, everyone got into the matches and was rooting boisterously for their favorite. And other than seeing Venus eventually take the title, there was a lot to be proud of -- I was impressed by Ivanovic's ability to stick it to her opponent again, I was heartened by the quality of points and that no return was allowed to go unpunished. And I was thrilled to see championship tennis back in Manhattan.

In the meantime, Venus goes home with another trophy, silencing critics -- including myself -- who'd thought she may have passed her prime. But now securely back in the top five, she's a legitimate threat at any tournament, which bodes well going into the spring season.

And if last night's matches are any indication, any one of these ladies could give her another challenge as well!

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