Joining the elite

Venus Williams with the trophy.-AP

Venus Williams was much fiercer than her French opponent and although she had a number of bosh shots, particularly off the forehand side, she knew she had to continue with her big game if she was not to become another unexpected victim of he dogged Marion Bartoli. Jon Henderson reports.

Venus Williams

Venus Williams found a devastatingly effective answer to the French riddle that had baffled six other players at these championships — she simply gave the person who posed it, Marion Bartoli, a good working over. Her high-speed serving in the second set would not have been out of place in a men’s match; her match-point winning bomb of a delivery fired at Bartoli’s body at 124 mph would not have been out of place in a prize fight.

“My dad always tells me to mix it up,” she said, “but ultimately I like to go for it really, really hard.”

The nearly 15,000 spectators packed into the temporarily lidless Centre Court saw that at close quarters. The luckless Bartoli felt it.

Venus had been expecting to play the role of the avenging older sister until late on July 6 when Bartoli pulled off one of the great Wimbledon surprises by beating the top-seed, Justine Henin, whose victims had included Venus’ younger sibling, Serena.

Now Venus had to avoid the muddle that Henin, the third-seed Jelena Jankovic and four others got themselves into trying to fathom Bartoli, who possesses the athletic aura of a shop assistant and a modest playing record.

The solution, she decided, was to play it straight — straight, hard and fierce — her normal attacking game, in other words. Bartoli, who has been coached by her doctor father Walter to play a canny game, made it as difficult for her as she could. But in the end, as weather that was more mid-summer than late autumn finally illuminated the Championships, Venus crashed through 6-4, 6-1 to join Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf as the only women in the past 50 years to have won four Wimbledon singles titles.

At number 23, she is the lowest seed ever to carry off the title, although if the seedings had been based on grass-court pedigree rather than her recent record on all surfaces, which anyway has been distorted by her absences through a persistent wrist injury, she would surely have been in the top five.

This must have been as sweet as any of her three previous Wimbledon wins, or her other Grand Slam triumphs at the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, although she would not say whether the trophy she won here two years ago would now give way to the latest one. “The last time I won (in 2005) it was really an outrageous way to win,” she said, referring to the match point she saved in an epic final against Lindsay Davenport. “I keep that one by my bed.”

What made this one special was that Venus was boiling with indignation after Serena’s integrity was impugned by those who felt she faked injury in her fourth-round win over Daniela Hantuchova. She was almost as aggrieved when Serena, still out of sorts, lost to Henin in the quarter-finals. Even if she could not directly avenge this result, victory over the player who upset Henin in the semis was a pretty good substitute. Serena, in the stands, looked on approvingly. Venus made a point of thanking her ‘for inspiring me’.

Asked if she thought there might have been an all-Williams final if Serena had not been injured, Venus said: “I think that could have been a huge possibility. Serena couldn’t even hit a backhand (against Henin) but she was still right in there, took a set and was rearing to come back in the third.”

It was fitting that the final ended when Venus thrashed one of her biggest serves into the body of Bartoli, who seemed more interested in protecting herself from the missile than returning it. At 124 mph, it was only one mph slower than her fastest of the afternoon, which in turn was just five mph shy of the fastest serves managed by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in winning their men’s semi-finals.

Affectingly, it was the words of the losing finalist that produced the best post-match moment when Bartoli thanked her father for being “the one person and one person only capable of making my dream of playing in a Wimbledon final come true”. At this, Pere Bartoli burst into tears and Richard Williams, Venus’ father, turned to comfort him. “He’s always believed in my capacity to be one of the best in the world,” she added later. For Venus, the emotional joys of her triumph were soon superseded by the outward and visible, and highly lucrative, ones: the 121-year-old silver salver, which, appropriately, is known as the ‘Venus Rosewater Dish’, and a cheque that for the first time was for the same amount as the men’s winner — £700,000. Seeing Billie Jean King, who has campaigned tirelessly for equal prize money, in the stands, Venus thanked her publicly for her efforts. “I love you Billie Jean for what you have achieved,” she said.

That tennis is a game for people of all dimensions can rarely have been more clearly illustrated in a women’s final here than when Venus and Bartoli walked on court together. At just over 5ft 6in and with her heavy build, Bartoli looked like a moonlighting park player; the willowy, 6ft 1in Venus looked like a moonlighting basketball player. They are about equidistant from what is generally regarded as the ideal height for a tennis player. Once they started playing, though, there was a sharp convergence from what separates them physically with both players hitting some fierce blows off the ground.

Venus’, though, were just that much fiercer and although she had a number of bosh shots, particularly off the forehand side, she knew she had to continue with her big game if she was not to become another unexpected victim of the dogged Bartoli. Venus throttled up the power in the second set and at 3-0 down Bartoli summoned the trainer. Ostensibly this was to have her foot strapped; in all probability it was a last attempt to regroup. All it did, though, was prompt Venus to have treatment of her own. What there was of a counter-attack from Bartoli quickly fizzled out.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007