Rising like the phoenix

The nagging injuries that slowed Venus Williams' progress in 2004 were no longer nagging at her.

CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

TWO fine comeback tales collided on the most celebrated court in tennis, and Venus Williams, not Lindsay Davenport, was the big-hitting American veteran who experienced the thrill of a happy ending after the longest women's final in the history of a tournament that has more history than any other. Venus' 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7 victory over the top-seeded Davenport gave her a third Wimbledon singles title, but only after she had saved a match point on her serve in the 10th game of the final set and played a great deal more courageous tennis in the points and games that followed to put an end to her nearly four-year drought.

Venus' last Grand Slam singles title came at the U.S. Open in 2001, but at that stage of her career she was the world's dominant player. This time, she arrived at Wimbledon as a rank outsider, seeded 14th and ranked 16th. But she was healthy for a change and lifted her power game in a spectacular hurry. She defeated the defending Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and Davenport, the world's No. 1 player, in the end. In the epic final, she became the first woman in 70 years to win Wimbledon after saving a match point. When it was finally over after two hours and 45 minutes and Venus had finally finished leaping on the grass with delight, she was asked to explain to the Centre Court crowd what this latest and most unexpected major title meant. "You never know what life is going to throw at you," she said. Venus, now 25, spoke from a lifetime of sometimes exhilarating, sometimes devastating experience. Who could have imagined that she and her younger sister, Serena, would rise from learning tennis on a public park in the rough-and-tumble Los Angeles suburb of Compton, California, to become two of the most successful champions in the history of a sport long dominated by white players?

Who could have imagined that Venus, the older, more protective sister, would be totally eclipsed by Serena on court and that both sisters would eventually be knocked off the tour by major injuries and then have to cope with the murder of their half sister, Yetunde Price?

It all reads like a film treatment, but it is reality for the Williamses, and there were plenty more plot twists on the grass on the day of the final, as Venus refused to buckle under Davenport's considerable baseline pressure.

"Every time the chips were down for Venus, she played unbelievably," said Davenport, who had beaten her four times in a row. "I thought I played really well. I thought I had a lot of chances, and I felt like she never allowed me to take advantage of those chances." Davenport's first big chance came when she served for the match at 6-5 in the second set, but Venus made a sneak attack on the net on the opening point off a deep backhand and put away a forehand volley.

She would end up breaking Davenport's serve at love to force a tie-breaker in which she jumped out to a 5-1 lead and then held on to win after Davenport cut that lead to 5-4.

Davenport's biggest chance came with Venus serving at 4-5 in the final set. Davenport had already strained a muscle in her lower back earlier in the set, requiring medical treatment on and off court on the previous changeover. Venus did her best to stay loose and when Davenport returned to the court, Venus took a quick 30-0 lead, but Davenport evened the score at 30-30 and Venus, who struggled on occasions with her serve, hit a double fault to give Davenport a match point.

The crowd was roaring, and it looked like Davenport's long drought was about to end. Her last Grand Slam singles title had come at the Australian Open in 2000. But Venus jogged in place, breathed deeply, put a first serve into play and then finished off a baseline rally with a clean backhand winner down the line.

Davenport would never get quite so close again to the major title she has been chasing with increasing urgency for more than five years. The best the 29-year-old Californian could manage was getting within two points of the title on Venus' serve in the 12th and 14th games.

"Lindsay played so well; so many times I was just trying to stay in the match," Venus told the crowd later. "I could not have asked to play a better player today to bring my level up."

When she arrived at Wimbledon, Venus had not advanced past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam event in two years. There had been some encouraging preliminary signs. At the Nasdaq-100 tournament in Miami in March, she beat her sister, Serena, for the first time in three years before losing to Sharapova in the semifinals. She later won her first tournament in more than a year in Istanbul, Turkey, against a weak field.

But at the French Open, the major event that preceded Wimbledon, she imploded in the third round against a 15-year-old Bulgarian, Sesil Karatantcheva, making unforced errors in bunches and struggling with her serve.

Testy and taciturn after sustaining that latest indignity, she refused to entertain suggestions that she should try to change her approach to her faltering career by hiring a coach other than her parents Richard Williams and Oracene Price.

"I think that I'll continue on my path,'' she said. Happily, the path next led to grass, the surface where she won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2000 and the surface that still dovetails most neatly with her flat power and athleticism. The nagging injuries that slowed her progress in 2004 were no longer nagging at her, but what really seemed to sharpen her focus was Serena's teary defeat against the American veteran Jill Craybas in the third round.

Serena soon left London, but Venus quickly re-established the family's credentials by allowing Craybas just two games in the fourth round. Venus then swept past the recent French Open finalist Mary Pierce and then Sharapova without losing a set. Shots that had betrayed her, like her forehand and second serve, were suddenly solid.

Some of the old cracks reappeared against Davenport, as Venus sprayed forehands in stages and frequently had trouble generating pace with her first serve. She also finished with 10 double faults, but this match was not really about numbers. It was about two former champions pushing each other to the mutual limits of their big-hitting talents, fully aware that such an opportunity comes along too rarely and might not come again.

"It was great, and it was exhilarating," Davenport said. "Even after losing the second, I felt like, God this is a good match, and wow, she really played well to win that set. As the third set went on, it was great. The opportunities were there. It wasn't like all of a sudden, we're just blowing easy balls," Davenport said. "We had really tough rallies. It's hard to control on grass. She just was, like I said, incredible. Whenever I felt like I was just about to shut the door completely, it was like, `Oops. Let's open that back up.'"

As it turned out, the only one who could slam the door was Venus, and after breaking Davenport's serve to take an 8-7 lead, it was her turn to walk out on this overcast afternoon and serve for the trophy that, as coincidence would have it, bears her name: the Venus Rosewater Dish.

She took a 40-0 lead with a cocksure backhand pass down the line, throwing both arms into the clammy air and then hunching forward as if she was limbering up for the celebration to come.

After nearly four years, it was her moment to shine: not Serena's, not a Belgian's, not a Russian's, not another American's.

She double-faulted on the next point, but then she put her first serve in play and earned what she had been waiting for when Davenport's last forehand struck the net. At the net, Davenport, who was beaten in this year's Australian Open by Serena, extended her right hand, but Venus insisted on an embrace.

And she was soon leaping much higher than the height of the net, pointing at her family in the stands and doubling over with laughter, looking like she had just heard the best joke her sisters had ever come up with.

New York Times News Service