- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- It was one minute past midnight, a new Tuesday in this edgy City That Never Sleeps, when Venus Williams bounded into the dingy, makeshift press room.
She should have been exhausted -- she had fallen asleep earlier in the locker room awaiting her first match -- but somewhere under the blue seats at Madison Square Garden, Williams summoned the strength to finish the job -- again. Beating Kim Clijsters 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 to win the Billie Jean King Cup in the BNP Paribas Showdown somehow had energized her.
"The crowd there was definitely a real connection out there," said Williams, who unleashed a few soaring slams that might have helped the resident New York Knicks. "They were rooting me on. That was the most support I've ever had from a home crowd in the U.S. anywhere. It was great to see."
Yes, it was.
Williams dropped this observation casually, without bitterness or embellishment in an upbeat press performance, but in retrospect it was striking. In June she will turn 30, the terrible, not-so-glass ceiling for tennis players. How is it possible that the noticeably thinned crowd, once more than 11,000, was behind her more than any other at home in America in this, her 17th year as a professional?
Of course, the strapping $400,000 winner's check for a night's work might have had a mood-altering effect, but it's not too late to realize that Williams simply loves to play tennis. Consider this daunting triathlon she just completed:
• On Feb. 20, Williams defeats 20-year-old Victoria Azarenka on the outdoor hard court at Dubai Tennis Stadium and hoists the silver trophy that resembles a stylish teapot. She leaves the United Arab Emirates, south of the Persian Gulf, and flies to Mexico.
• On Saturday, Williams completes her 10th match victory in 12 days, dons a massive black sombrero in Acapulco and shows off a basketball-sized silver tennis ball trophy after coming from a set behind on the red clay at the Fairmont Acapulco Princess Hotel to beat Polona Hercog, a 19-year-old Slovenian.
• After arriving in New York on Sunday, Williams defeats No. 3-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova in the one-set semifinal on Monday night, then returns less than an hour later to face Clijsters in the New York final. After playing three consecutive three-set matches to conclude Acapulco, this one again goes the distance on the blue indoor carpet. Williams, naturally, emerges with the glass crystal cup.
The one constant in all those snapshots? Her wide, only slightly weary smile.
For those of you following along at home (and we know you are), that's three countries, three different surfaces -- and three titles. Twelve opponents in 14 days without a loss. And although the New York matches were exhibitions, you got the idea that Williams worked harder to beat Kuznetsova and Clijsters than she did against, say, No. 164-ranked Edina Gallovits in the semifinals at Acapulco.
Clijsters, 26, who stepped away from tennis for more than 18 months to start a family, marveled at Williams' perseverance.
"She's been in three different parts of the world in the last three weeks," Clijsters said afterward. "Maybe some other players wouldn't have come [to New York]. As you get older, you don't feel as fresh after tough matches. She copes with it well.
"She's focused and disciplined. We can only admire that."
The last time Clijsters faced one of the William sisters in New York, it didn't end with verbal bouquets. Six months ago, in a U.S. Open semifinal against Clijsters, Serena Williams was called for a foot fault near the end of the match and ripped off an ugly tirade at the offending line judge. Clijsters eventually won the title, and Serena was slapped with a record fine and a two-year probation in Grand Slam events. She pulled out of the New York exhibition citing a leg injury, but surfaced last week in Kenya, where she opened her second African secondary school.
On Monday night, there were a few near-misses with overheads, but no conflict to speak of. Just drama of a different sort.
Williams won the first set and was up 2-0 in the second when her right leg -- heavily wrapped -- seemed to slow her down. Clijsters took something off the ball and kept it in play, forcing Williams to run, and won the next five games. She won the second set easily and was leading 4-2 in the third when Williams, her left thigh also bandaged tightly, dug in. After holding serve, she broke Clijsters when the Belgian hit a forehand volley into the net.
It's been nearly two years since Williams has won a Grand Slam singles title (Wimbledon, 2008), but her serve can still overpower the WTA's most accomplished players. Her last offering of the match, which secured a 6-5 lead, was her fastest of the night. It was her ninth ace, clocked at 121 mph, 19 mph faster than Clijsters' best -- or anyone else's, for that matter.
After Williams converted the second of four match points (courtesy of the expedient no-ad scoring system), she could look forward to some rest. She'll play next in her hometown tournament, the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, later this month. She's ranked No. 5 in the world, and it's worth noting that No. 4 Caroline Wozniacki is more than a decade younger.
Peter Bodo of Tennis Magazine asked Williams afterward if she thought she had one more Grand Slam run left in her.
"Well," Williams said, "I always think I'm going to play well. Right now, obviously, I'm playing with the most experience of my life. I'm not going in with any doubts. I don't have any doubts that I can play well."
Later, she mused, "I just keep running. I just keep hitting. Keep getting the ball in. That's the secret."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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