This year was no different

Venus Wiliams... not ready yet for her eclipse.-AFP

We remember the women's event at Wimbledon in stories, it's the way it's always been since 1884. Stories of valour, and fashion, and skill, and longevity, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

IN time, matches eventually become numbers, cold digits embossed on white pages, clinical reminders of games won, winners hit, errors made, courage catalogued in figures, failure inventoried in scores, history told in a growing list of a names.

It's not what we remember. We remember the women's event at Wimbledon in stories, it's the way it's always been since 1884. Stories of valour, and fashion, and skill, and longevity, of Suzanne Lenglen's balletic grace and Gussie Moran's graceful frilly knickers, of Jana Novotna's weep on a Duchess' shoulder and Martina Navratilova's Queen-like reign, of Evonne Goolagong's walkabouts and Althea Gibson's walk with history.

Always there are stories and this year was no different.

There were stories of redemption like Venus Williams, at 25, dear God, making a comeback, playing less with the regal pleasure of her past and more with a desperate purpose, all of it advertised on a face graver than an undertaker's.

What must it be like to own Centre Court once and then for days not even be invited to play there? To win four Grand Slam titles in two years and then none since Wimbledon 2001? People caught up with Tiger Woods, and so why not the Williams. All reigns pass, all rulers mortal, but Venus is evidently not ready yet for her eclipse. As she said: "Everyone has their moment in the sun. That's what my mom always says, `everyone has their chance'."

Against defending champion Maria Sharapova in the semi-finals, she arrived to commit murder with a racquet. Serve bruising, stunning racquet-head speed, teeth gritted till you thought she might bleed, throwing her body almost into every groundstroke, showing off that wingspan of a startled albatross, we had almost forgotten what Venus could do. Maybe so had she.

Is she back, we do not know, but how sweet it must feel to play how she knows. How sweeter still to be told, in jest, after her win over Sharapova by her younger sister, who had beaten her in five straight Grand Slam finals, "Can I have your autograph?"

Father Williams says tennis is not his daughters' first priority, but Venus, tripped for so long by injury, swears it is. Greatness, she understands, is fleeting; this tournament, this Centre Court, belongs to no one forever.

"I think many people have had this place: Navratilova, Graf, Billie Jean King, all those people. It's just something that's rented." And she had made a powerful bid.

Lindsay Davenport... hard nut to crack-AFP

There were tall stories like the six-foot two-and-a-half inch Lindsay Davenport, who was supposed to be retired, her feet too painful, her journey at 29 done, babies perhaps to have. Or was it tennis babies to first chastise?

"Never", Davenport said, that slow smile rippling across her face, when asked if he watches herself on tape. She should. On bad days, acceptably, she is clumsy; on her good days, with that detonating serve and slinging forehand as flat and unkind as a slap on the face, and oppressive strokes, she is an education. For a pleasant woman, Davenport can be a bully.

No one has anything disparaging to say about Davenport; pity is not enough people have anything much to say about Davenport. She doesn't earn courtside marriage proposals on placards like Sharapova nor has a pushy father to hog headlines like the Williams. No, Davenport, she's just nice, she's tough, like a schoolteacher who's temporarily put down Browning and picked up Wilson, easily confused in the locker room as an indulgent matron of overbearing prodigies.

Davenport is the winner of three Grand Slam titles, but somehow it's not enough to sell papers. Decency apparently is not a good billboard slogan. It should be. When Davenport is asked about Amelie Mauresmo's propensity to choke in big matches before their clash, she generously says: "I do believe she is good enough and strong enough to come through these situations". It's something we've forgotten, it's something we don't see any more. It's called class.

There were tired stories like Justine Henin-Hardenne, ill till recently, winning the French then folding quickly at Wimbledon as her body mutinied. Every glimpse of Martina Navratilova is a reminder of an age that will never return; no player will rival her 18 singles Grand Slam titles, let alone Margaret Court's 24.

Comparisons have become invalid, longevity has been erased from the vocabulary, as bodies are tortured on unforgiving courts, week after week, through rallies of unending attrition, and if you listen you can almost hear the nuts and bolts rattling loose on young athletic frames.

Serena is out of shape and falls predictably for tennis now is merciless to any lifestyle less than ascetic; Venus' abdomen is just healing after two years; Mauresmo has aching body parts; Clijsters is still healing knee and wrist, Jennifer Capriati is not even to be seen. During World War II, the premises of the club were used for a variety of civil defence functions including ambulance services, and without being too glib, now, too, they see their share of walking wounded.

Serena Williams... out of shape, out of practice and clearly out of grace.-AFP

There were loud stories like Miss Shrill Sharapova, who turns every young boyish head and camera her way, the most fascinating of concoctions. Russian name followed by an American twang. Face of an angel but grunt of a longshoreman. Dressed in a frilly skirt but wearing the demeanour of an impatient butcher. This girl is beautifully tough.

Sharapova is the real child of the Russian revolution, the youngest and the keenest, who resembles a model though her occasional awkward movement suggests she is running in stilettos. Last year she was a surprise; this year to not be in the semi-finals would have been one, for she is becoming famous for taking hold of matches in her perfectly polished teeth and not letting go.

Venus eventually prised victory loose in a semi-final of unrestrained violence, but Sharapova will build the muscle she craves, find a consistency of length, and then it is goodbye world.

There were sob stories like Amelie Mauresmo, whose talented elbow invariably locks with cement when a big match is on the line, and though a choke is an unfair label this time, again she led against Lindsay Davenport in the semi-finals, again she failed to be a keeper of her promise.

An Australian Open finalist in 1999, the charming Frenchwoman has yet to replicate that feat, presenting the terrible irony of a woman with an evidently sculpted body but a mind of discouraging frailty. Even Jana Novotna, whose chokes moved a world, finally won at Wimbledon, and Mauresmo must see her as patron saint of possibility.

Kim Clijsters... still healing her knee and wrist.-AFP

And there were instructional stories like Serena, once providing a lesson in aggressive shot-making, now failing to learn one in preparation and decorum.

Women's tennis has evolved too far for a player to pursue it as a hobby, to put down a television script and pick up a racquet and expect to rule.

Serena was out of shape, out of practice and clearly out of grace. When he lost to Jill Craybas, she moaned: "I think she just got balls back. She didn't do anything. She just pretty much had to show up."

On court and off court, she has been a better story.