Ever since the powers that be introduced 32 seeds at grand slam tournaments back in 2001, the first week of major championships have been – dare we say it? – a little predictable.
The top players are safely separated by battalions of lesser ranked hopefuls and as the queen bees make stately progress through the draw, some of them barely break a sweat. It makes for a cracking second week, mind you, but it does make the first few rounds a bit dull.
The only way to spice things up is to find a player who is really, really good but who has a really, really bad ranking and then hope that they draw a top player early doors. And on the impossible wish list, that is right up there with asking politicians to tell the truth and the Rolling Stones to act their age. Good luck with that one.
This year, though, Venus Williams has managed to throw a spanner in the works. Her ranking is not bad – No.26 in the world – but it is nowhere near as good as it should be, given her talents, experience and power. And today, in the third round, she is facing Maria Sharapova, the world No.2. It should be a belter.
Venus has been looking rather good this week, rattling through the rounds for the loss of just seven games. Then again, Shazza has been looking even better – she has yet to drop a single, solitary game. They have met seven times in the past with Shazza just edging the rivalry 4-3. She also leads 3-1 in the meetings on a hard court but, then again, Venus won their last encounter last year. Pick the bones out of that.
Venus’s ranking is still in the 20s because back in 2011, she was diagnosed with Sjorgen’s Syndrome, a condition affecting the immune system. There is no cure and the sufferer has to find a way to manage the symptoms as best they can. There are days when she feels like she has been run over by a truck and then there are days when she feels ready to beat the world.
She took a seven-month medical time-out between the US Open in 2011 and Miami 2012 and that sent her place in the world pecking order tumbling down to No.134. The climb back has taken its time.
In order to fill in the troughs and perk up the peaks as she copes with her condition, Venus has declared her body to be a temple. Clean living is the way to go and eschewing the poisons and contaminants that we mere mortals stuff our faces with day and daily (or chips, as they are also known) she follows a near-vegan diet. So how does she cope with such a strict regimen? Simple: she cheats. After all, a girl can only take so many hand-woven yoghurts and lentil lattes; Venus is a self-confessed “cheagan”.
“If it's on your plate I might get to cheat,” she warned. “If you're sitting next to me, good luck. You turn your head once and your food might be gone. I'm not perfect, but I try.”
So far, cheaganism is working a treat and, after setting herself the goal of qualifying for the Olympics last year, she came away from London with a gold medal in the doubles. Once she puts her mind to it, nothing can stop Venus from getting what she wants.
Then again, you could say exactly the same of Sharapova. She celebrated the rebirth of her career last year by winning the French Open and completing her career Grand Slam. It was the sweetest of victories coming after years of fighting a shoulder injury that first made it appearance in 2007. The problem was mis-diagnosed and for two years she went through rehab, surgery, setbacks and disappointments until finally she was given the all clear. Then came the struggle to rebuild her game and get back to her former position of grand slam contender. It took patience, determination and a lot of sheer bloody mindedness. But that’s what Sharapova is best at.
“I felt like I really deserve this one today because I’ve worked so hard and I went through so many tough days to get here,” she said with the French Open trophy in her hands. “I never, I never put my head down. I was grumpy and I had my tough days and I would yell at people and say, you’re promising one thing and it’s not happening. I’d certainly have my doubts but I kept going. I kept going and I didn’t let anyone tell me otherwise. It wasn’t in my interest.”
And today she gets to take on Venus. Two of the biggest names in the sport; two of the greatest champions in the game. And it is only the third round. Who’d have thunk it.