Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Mark of Venus

With each passing year, the career of one Venus Ebony Starr Williams and the All-England Club of London SW19 have become more and more intertwined. After today, her Wimbledon imprint will be indelible for all time.

AP PHOTO/Alastair Grant

Of course, this type of relationship has become a Wimbledon staple, as this exclusive venue, more than any of the other slam stops, rewards its greatest champions with an embrace that lasts generations. Like a neat freak with an obsessive compulsive disorder, definable eras of dominance are the way things operate on the fabled grounds. Champions are crowned on the final weekend, and they almost invariably come back to re-live the experience again and again and again in both the Ladies' and Gentlemen's competitions.

It's always lent a sort of stability to this old tournament, I think. Even as it's changed according to the times, the mark that a single great player can make on the history of the event has remained the same.

In the last thirty-plus years, we've seen Borg, Sampras and Federer-dominated periods in men's play, and King, Navratilova and Graf eras with the women. Today, Williams added her name to the honored list. The 2000's have become the Venus Era at Wimbledon, thanks to her professionally-crafted, 7-5/6-4 dispatching of her sister Serena in the Ladies' final today. She's now lifted the golden women's championship plate five times after seven final appearances over the last nine years.

Williams and Wimbledon have become quite the pair. In fact, the only thing that goes better with Venus is probably her sister, which made Saturday's match all the more intriguing. Against the person closest to her, at her career's most special locale, something had to give. Something would have to be sacrificed, if only for a couple of hours.

When Venus and Serena faced off in six of eight slam finals from 2001-03, during the height of Serena's prowess (all four slam titles during "Serena Slam" came at Venus' expense in finals), it was usually the younger Williams who was smiling the broadest following the match. As the meetings happened more often, they became somewhat anticlimactic affairs that were taken for granted. After a while, many people started to bemoan the familial dominance of the sport and even questioned the legitimacy of the results of their matchups (Elena Dementieva this week wasn't the first to wonder, with scant evidence even years ago when she didn't use a "lost in translation" platitude as an excuse, or appear to suggest that the Venus-vs.-Serena extravaganza winners were decided in a back room by father Richard before the first ball was struck) as the real thing never seemed to live up to all the pre-match hype.

But since the sisters last met in a slam decider, at Wimbledon in 2003, life has managed to intervene and block both their career paths to expected greatness. It usually does, from Mo Connolly in the 1950's to Tracy Austin in the 1980's, from Monica Seles in the 1990's to Justine Henin just a few months ago... one can never forecast exactly how careers and lives will turn out, and around which corners an individual will meet her greatest challenge. With the Williamses, there have been many -- injuries, focus, the murder of an older sister chief amongst them. They all coincided with a dip in Venus and Serena's on-court results. Eventually, the sisters were eclipsed in slam dominance and expectation by a tiny Belgian and a Russian who might be nearly as "American" in some people's eyes as the sisters.

But, through it all, Venus and Serena have never been TOO far away, and have remained capable of leaping from the pack when no one is looking. Even when their games have not been in top form, they've shown the ability to occasionally power through draws and win slam titles. Even while the two-headed Williams slam threat was absent the last five years, only two of those seasons came and went without at least one claiming a slam as her own. After alternating moments in the sun since 2003, their timing was finally right again at this Wimbledon. Through two weeks, neither lost a set and as each day passed a return to the all-Williams final routine of old became more and more likely. As today began, it was easy to be won over by the sense of a "homecoming" as far as the sisters were concerned, and the long-overdue hope that what was once taken for granted would finally be appreciated the second time around. For the most part, that's what turned out to be the case.

The first American television image of the sisters on the day of this final was a telling one. It was of Serena, traditional bouquet of flowers in hand, standing just yards from the entrance leading to Centre Court... waiting for Venus to finish tying her shoe so that they could enter the field of battle. It should have been a sign that this was going to be a day where Venus would ultimately be the center of attention.

It almost wasn't that way, though. Early on, at least. In the final's opening moments, Serena, like so many other opponents who faced Venus this past fortnight, had chances to put to the test her older sister's notion about her special connection to this tournament and how the ghosts of Centre Court always seem to have her back in times of trouble. Serena won ten of the first eleven points, breaking Venus in the first game of the match, then nearly having a break point to go up 3-0. But a netted forehand tied the score at 30/30 in game #3 rather than give Serena a chance to put Venus in an early hole. Venus held serve, and methodically moved forward.

In game #5, a Serena forehand down the line earned her a double break point chance to go up a double break at 4-1, but Venus' stretching low volley traveled over -- and nearly parallel to -- the net until the ball skidded off the grass far out of Serena's reach on the second break point. Soon after, an out-of-position Venus backhand floated toward the net, tripped over the net cord and gently dribbled onto Serena's side of the net to give Venus a game point. #1-seeded Ana Ivanovic had failed to fully take advantage of HER similar gift from the tennis Gods earlier in the tournament, losing one match later. But AnaIvo isn't Venus at this place. A point later, Serena hit a second serve return long and Venus kept the set close by holding serve.

The wind played havoc with Venus' service toss all match, but she was never rattled nor allowed herself to be hurried, as Maria Sharapova had when she was unceremoniously bounced from this Wimbledon during the first week of play. Williams might have done so at other slams in the same situation, but not here. Not on Centre Court. She was calm and contained, and made sure she got her toss right before she tried to hit the ball. Panic is not appreciated at "home," and she held to that pattern throughout the set and the match.

When Serena's play sagged just enough to give Venus her first break point opportunities, Venus used a huge return to take control of a point and grab the break, knotting the score at 4-4. Serena had another shot to break in the next game, but in a classic Venus point, the older sister easily ran down a Serena volley with long strides that mercilessly ate up the grass, hitting a running forehand down the line to deny Serena a chance to serve for the 1st set.

After saving another break point, on Venus' third game point, the chair umpire initially declared a let when Serena's exasperated mid-point yell was misidentified as a call from the stands. In truth, Serena had thought her crosscourt backhand was sailing wide (it actually landed in) and had stopped playing following her reflexive exclamation. Serena conceded the point to Venus since it was her yell that had interrupted play. It secured the hold for Venus, and put her ahead for the first time at 5-4. Hopefully, a potentially suspicious Dementieva wasn't watching that one.

Up 6-5, Venus continued to routinely take advantage of Serena's woeful second serve percentage (Serena won just 10% for the set, claiming just one point). At 30/30, Serena was trapped at the baseline by penetrating Venus groundstrokes (much as she was against Sharapova in the '04 final) and lost two more points when she was forced to hit second serves and couldn't wrestle away control of the points from her sister. After nearly being pushed over the edge early in the 1st set, Venus won it 7-5, and looked to make this match the fifteenth in sixteen meetings won by the Williams who claimed the opening stanza.

Serena carved out yet another break point in the first game of the 2nd set, but Venus held again with a 129 mph serve -- the fastest ever by a woman at Wimbledon.. Game #3 turned out to be a monster one. Venus saved two early break chances even after having to employ second serves, but after falling down behind the baseline on consecutive points, she was finally broken on Serena's seventh break point of the seven-deuce, twenty-point game.

But any good feelings resulting from Serena's second break after thirteen chances during the match didn't last long. Venus, who'd slowly but surely turned the momentum of the match in her favor, immediately broke back the next game, converting her third of four break attempts in the match to that point. After Venus held for 3-2, Serena bounced her racket off the ground on the way to her chair during the changeover. It wasn't exactly a moment of Safin-like flair or force, but it signaled Serena's outward frustration with her inability to seize the opportunities she was presented throughout the match.

In the next game, Serena brilliantly ran Venus from side to side for the first time to win a point, but it was a sight that she could never duplicate. Meanwhile, Venus held for 4-3 by exhibiting nearly her entire arsenal in a single game: a powerful ace, a perfect volley, a service winner and a deeply placed forehand that jumped up from the baseline and caromed off the frame of Serena's racket.

In the final games of the match, Serena unmistakably resembled a discouraged player looking for a spark to ignite her game and turn the tide of a set that was still within her reach, but one who didn't honestly believe the moment was going to come. It didn't, either. Serving at 4-5, Serena found herself down double championship point. After one final gasp (an ace), she hit a backhand wide to essentially place the crown on Venus' head on the day of her official Centre Court coronation.

In one moment, seven years after she last defeated Serena in a grand slam final in New York, Venus was ushered into the pantheon of all-time Wimbledon champions... by her little sister.

One could make the argument that this might be the greatest of Williams' seven career grand slam titles because she claimed it in such a calm, professional manner. She maneuvered her way through this Wimbledon without dropping a set, doing so in a workwomanlike fashion that, while not perfect nor awe-inspiring, put her hard-won experience on full display. A younger Venus, with a penchant for all-or-nothing attempts at physical domination on the court, may not have been able to be patient enough to win a grand slam the way she did this one. But, at 28, she now knows the lay of the land, especially at this tournament. She understands what it takes to win at Wimbledon, and her knowledge fairly well laps the field. Like a Sherpa guide making her way up Mt. Everest, she knows this terrain, and maybe no player is better equipped to traverse it, nor show the appropriate respect for her accomplishment once she does.

Her still-powerful serve, healthy legs and crisp volleys have made her her generation's best grass court player -- and it's not a title she's likely or going to be willing to give up any time soon. What comes next in Venus' life and career is anyone's guess, but it's probably a near-certainty that this won't be the last time she manages to impose her will on an opponent on a Saturday afternoon in early July within the confines of Centre Court.

Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, both still ahead of Venus on the all-time Wimbledon singles titles list, were both fittingly in attendance in the Royal Box for this match. As the years go by, they'll be saving a courtside spot in the queue of this tournament's greatest champions. But Venus hasn't finished writing her chapter in Wimbledon history. Not yet.

As it stands, Venus' special relationship with Wimbledon is still strong. Last year, she spearheaded the successful drive for equal prize money for the women at the tournament, and managed to pick up a title along the way, too. Who knows? Maybe if she can maintain her lofty position for a while longer she might be able to squeeze a little show court and schedule equity out of the Club, as well.

Sure, it's a long shot... but since when has it ever been wise to underestimate what Venus can pull off at Wimbledon?

Later in the day, the Williams sisters teamed to win the Women's Doubles title over Lisa Raymond & Samantha Stosur, 6-2/6-2. It's their seventh grand slam doubles title as a team, but the first since winning the Australian in 2003. Serena now has seventeen total career slam titles (singles, doubles & mixed), while Venus has sixteen.

...Daniel Nestor & Nenad Zimonjic defeated Jonas Bjorkman & Kevin Ullyett 7-6/6-7/6-3/6-3 for the Men's Doubles title. It gives Nestor a career doubles Grand Slam.

...Laura Robson became the first British girl to take the Wimbledon junior title since 1984, defeating #3-seeded Noppawan Lertcheewakarn 6-3/3-6/6-1 in the final. She won't be getting her wish and having Marat Safin escort her to the Champions Ball, but she's not going to have to worry about whether or not she's the center of attention for quite some time now. Hopefully, it'll be the beginning of a wonderful friendship. If not, she'll always have London. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

...and, finally, some housekeeping:

TOP PLAYER: Venus Williams/USA
RISERS: Zheng Jie/CHN & Katarina Srebotnik/SLO
SURPRISES: Tamaryn Hendler/BEL & Romana Tabakova/SVK
VETERANS: Venus Williams/USA & Lisa Raymond/USA
FRESH FACES: Laura Robson/GBR & Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA
DOWN: Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA
COMEBACK: Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur, USA/AUS
DOUBLES: Samantha Stosur/AUS
MATCH: Girls Final - Robson d. Lertcheewakarn 6-3/3-6/6-1
...24 years in the making, 14 of which Robson was actually alive to see.

#7 Venus Williams/USA def. #6 Serena Williams 7-5/6-4

#1 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #2 Rafael Nadal/ESP

#11 Serena Williams/Venus Williams (USA/USA) def. #16 Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur (USA/AUS) 6-2/6-2

#2 Daniel Nestor/Nenad Zimonjic (CAN/SRB) def. #8 Jonas Bjorkman/Kevin Ullyett (SWE/ZIM) 7-6/6-7/6-3/6-3

#1 Katarina Srebotnik/Mike Bryan (SLO/USA) vs. Samantha Stosur/Bob Bryan (AUS/USA)

Laura Robson/GBR def. #3 Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA 6-3/3-6/6-1

Henri Kontinen/FIN vs. #9 Grigor Dmitrov/BUL

#6 Polona Hercog/Jessica Moore (SLO/AUS) vs. Isabella Holland/Sally Peers (AUS/AUS)

#3 Matt Reid/Bernard Tomic (AUS/AUS) vs. Hsieh Cheng-Peng/Yang Tsung-Hua(TPE/TPE)

[series tied 8-8; Serena 1 walkover win]
98 Aust.Open 2nd - Venus 7-6,6-1
98 Rome QF - Venus 6-4,6-2
99 Miami F - Venus 6-1,4-6,6-4
99 Grand Slam Cup F - Serena 6-1,3-6,6-4
00 Wimbledon SF - Venus 6-2,7-6
01 Ind.Wells SF - Serena walkover
01 US Open F - Venus 6-2,6-4
02 Miami SF - Serena 6-2,6-2
02 R.Garros F - Serena 7-5,6-3
02 Wimbledon F - Serena 7-6,6-3
02 US Open F - Serena 6-3,6-4
03 Aust.Open F - Serena 7-6,3-6,6-4
03 Wimbledon F - Serena 4-6,6-4,6-2

05 Miami QF - Venus 6-1,7-6
05 US Open 4th - Venus 7-6,6-2

08 Bangalore SF - Serena 6-3,3-6,7-6
08 Wimbledon F - Venus 7-5/6-4

1998-01...Venus 5-1
2002-03...Serena 6-0
2005-08...Venus 3-1
Hard...Venus 5-4
Clay...tied 1-1
Carpet...Serena 1-0
Grass...tied 2-2
Australian...tied 1-1
Roland Garros...Serena 1-0
Wimbledon...tied 2-2
US...Venus 2-1
2nd Round...Venus 1-0
4th Round...Venus 1-0
QF...Venus 2-0
SF...Serena 2-1
F...Serena 6-3

17...Serena Williams
16...Venus Williams
10...Virginia Ruano-Pascual
9...Lisa Raymond

[pre-OPEN ERA]
8...Helen Wills-Moody
7...Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers
6...Blanche Bingley-Hillyard
6...Suzanne Lenglen
5...Charlotte Cooper-Sterry
5...Lottie Dodd
[OPEN ERA - since 1968]
9...Martina Navratilova
7...Steffi Graf
NOTE: Billie Jean King won 6 total, but only 4 in Open era

2000 Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA
2001 Lisa Raymond/Rennae Stubbs, USA/AUS
2002 Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA
2003 Kim Clijsters/Ai Sugiyama, BEL/JPN
2004 Cara Black/Rennae Stubbs, ZIM/AUS
2005 Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/RSA
2006 Yan Zi/Zheng Jie, CHN/CHN
2007 Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/RSA
2008 Serena Williams/Venus Williams, USA/USA

TOP QUALIFIERS: Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez/ESP & Eva Hrdinova/CZE
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Venus Williams/USA
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd.- Ivanovic d. Dechy 6-7/7-6/10-8 (down 2 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd. - Peer d. Safina 7-5/6-7/8-6 (3:;25)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): Girls Final - Robson d. Lertcheewakarn 6-3/3-6/6-1
FIRST SEED OUT: #30 Dominika Cibulkova/SVK (1st Rd.-lost to Zheng)
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE (all to 3rd Rd.)
IT GIRL: Agnieszka Radwanska/POL
COMEBACK PLAYER: Tamarine Tanasugarn/THA
CRASH & BURN: Maria Sharapova/RUS (lost 2nd Rd. to Kudryavtseva)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Nicole Vaidisova, CZE (point from being down 6-3/0-6/0-4 to Stosur in 2nd Rd.)
LAST BRITS STANDING: Anne Keothavong & Elena Baltacha, GBR (both to 2nd Rd.)
DOUBLES STAR Samantha Stosur/AUS

All for Day 12. More tomorrow.

ON MONDAY: "Odds & Ends Between London and New York," with a 3Q Hard Court Season preview, Ms. Backspin update and Week 28 picks
ALSO NEXT WEEK: Grass Court Awards


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