Shining brightly


WIMBLEDON, England – Through all of those injuries and inconsistency, all of those early defeats at majors and dips in the rankings, Venus Williams clung to this thought:

At her best, she’s as good as there is, particularly on a certain patch of grass.

With a second consecutive close-to-perfect performance on Centre Court, Williams beat No. 5-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-4 Thursday to reach the semifinals and close in on a fourth Wimbledon title.

“I believe in my abilities. I’ve been blessed with a lot of things to work with on the tennis court,” Williams said. “I feel like as long as I’m healthy and have a chance to prepare, I definitely am going to have a foot in the door.”

She slammed it wide open two days in a row against top-five players who own major titles. Williams ceded a grand total of 11 games in her victories over 2004 Wimbledon and 2006 U.S. Open champion Maria Sharapova in the fourth round Wednesday, then 2004 U.S. Open champion Kuznetsova.

Perhaps that old Williams intimidation factor is back.

“Players go into the match knowing that they have to play very, very well,” she said. “That could be pressure.”

In today’s semifinals, Williams will face French Open runner-up Ana Ivanovic, the No. 6-seeded Serb, who saved three match points and got past No. 14 Nicole Vaidisova of the Czech Republic 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.

“Coming in here, I didn’t expect this,” the 19-year-old Ivanovic said. “Venus is a great player. She is playing so good the last couple of matches. It’s going to be very tough for me.”

Serving while down 5-3 in the final set, Ivanovic was one point from losing three times. She saved the first match point with a big forehand into a corner that forced an errant forehand from Vaidisova, and the second with a clean forehand winner. On the third, Vaidisova dumped a return into the net, beginning a stretch in which Ivanovic won 13 of 15 points thanks to aggressive play.

“I like to take risks,” said Ivanovic, who wore pink and black tape around her right knee as a precaution. “I didn’t want to wait and see if she’s going to make a mistake or not. I just wanted to take this in my hands and make the shots.”

Williams’ five Grand Slam singles titles include Wimbledon in 2000, 2001 and 2005. She also lost to younger sister Serena in the 2002 and 2003 finals.

“Centre Court has just been good to Williams in the last seven years or so,” Venus said. “So it’s a good thing if your last name’s Williams here.”

If she is oh-so-familiar with the surroundings, Ivanovic hadn’t so much as set foot in the tournament’s main stadium until Thursday morning. She went to watch two games of Williams-Kuznetsova, she said, “so I could get a little feel” for the place before facing Vaidisova.

The other semifinal pits No. 1 Justine Henin against No. 18 Marion Bartoli.

They won quarterfinals Wednesday, when Henin beat Serena Williams and Bartoli eliminated Michaella Krajicek.

Henin, twice a runner-up at the All England Club, is trying to complete a career Grand Slam. Bartoli, meanwhile, never had been beyond the third round at any major until reaching the quarterfinals last month at Roland Garros.

“Even if on paper I’m going to be the favorite,” Henin said, “it’s going to be another kind of story on the court.”

Venus Williams, for her part, was far less cautious. Asked whom she considers the favorite for the title, her face lit up.

“Now why would I say anyone else?” Williams said, her grin wide as can be. “Come on.”

Indeed, despite all of her health problems over the years – an abdominal tear, wrist and knee injuries, and the list goes on – she nearly always seems to find her footing at Wimbledon. The slick grass makes her fast serves seem even faster, her strong groundstrokes seem even stronger.

After being two points from defeat against a 59th-ranked opponent in the first round, then double-faulting 14 times and trailing 5-3 in the third set against a 71st-ranked foe in the third – both on Court 2 – Williams improved dramatically the past two days.

She smacked serves at up to 123 mph Thursday, even conking Kuznetsova in her cornrows with one 118 mph offering that left the Russian shaking her head. The biggest lapse for Williams came when she tried to serve it out at 5-4 in the second set. She blew four match points, including one with a double-fault, but converted her fifth by hanging tough in a 20-stroke rally that ended when Kuznetsova sent a forehand long.

In the two years since Williams’ last Grand Slam championship, she’s missed two majors because of a bad left wrist, exited in the first round at another, and done no better than getting to the quarterfinals at any – until now.

So while Williams arrived at Wimbledon ranked outside the top 30, and is seeded 23rd, as of Thursday night she was one of only four women who could take home the women’s singles trophy, which just happens to be named the Venus Rosewater Dish.

AP-ES-07-05-07 1316EDT