Venus caps comeback with Wimbledon victory
WIMBLEDON, England -- Waiting for the trophy presentation to finally commence, the fans at Centre Court were eerily silent. Nobody cheering, nobody laughing, nobody chanting, nobody clapping.
Except for one 25-year-old woman, rocking up and down on her courtside chair, hands pressed embarrassingly against her cheeks, knees bouncing up and down like pistons. Venus Williams couldn't believe where she was. She couldn't comprehend what had just happened.
She had overcome a set-and-a-half of mediocre tennis, an erratic serve, an inconsistent forehand and a countless number of back-pressed-firmly-against-the-wall moments to defeat Lindsay Davenport 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7 and win the Wimbledon women's championship, her first Grand Slam title in four years.
All fortnight, Williams had insisted that she always played her best tennis when teetering on the brink of disaster. Saturday she proved it, becoming not only the lowest seed to win the tournament, but the first woman in 70 years to win after facing championship point.
It took the longest women's final in tournament history -- 2 hours, 46 minutes, eclipsing the Billie Jean King-Margaret Court championship match in 1970 -- to make the turnaround complete.
"I just wanted to hang in there," Venus said. "I didn't want to be off the court in an hour. I wanted it to be an hour 30, hour 40, something. I just wanted to stay as positive as I could."
When tennis historians look back on this year's final, they'll look past Williams' chiseled frame. They'll ignore her catlike reflexes or jaw-dropping quickness. And they'll give credit where credit is due: The reason Williams won her fifth Grand Slam was because of the two most important organs in the human body: her heart and her brain.
All great champions have it. Michael Jordan. Joe Montana. Curt Schilling. The burning desire to refuse to lose. It isn't even an option. At the highest levels of athletic performance, it's the intangible that separates the good from the great, the great from the legendary.
On Saturday, it separated Davenport from Williams. Both players gave everything they have -- Davenport overcoming a back injury in the third set and Williams overcoming a shaky start -- to push the final set to 16 games. But only one came out on top.
"She just took it away from me. She deserved to win," Davenport said. "Whenever I felt I was about to shut the door completely it was like, 'oops, let's open that back up again.' "
Like usual, Williams was quick to give credit to younger sister Serena, watching back home in the states. Venus said there was one particular match Serena played against Lindsay Davenport earlier in her career where she came back from a huge hole to win. It stuck with Venus.
"She should have lost that day, but she kept fighting," Venus said. "After that, I always wanted to be like her. I wanted to be like her."
Saturday, when the going got tough, that match was tucked into the back of Williams' head. So, too, were the endless words of encouragement from her mother and father.
Stay tough. Hold serve. Play aggressive. Last longer.
"My mom always says this kind of stuff so I was thinking about all this stuff she always says," Williams said. "I wasn't thinking about anything else."
Whatever she was thinking about, it worked, because midway through the second set, Williams looked helpless. Laying flat on her back behind the Centre Court baseline, she had been exposed as a fraction of the player who had dominated Maria Sharapova 48 hours earlier.
Her serve was erratic, her forehand inconsistent and now she had slipped chasing a Lindsay Davenport backhand, fallen on her backside and found herself laying flat on the Wimbledon grass. After losing break point.
But she stood up, dusted herself off and, in doing so, seemingly wiped away all the bad vibes. For the next game she broke back, unleashing a pair of fire-breathing backhands into the corner, forcing a tiebreaker. There, she controlled the tempo, scoring four straight points before taking the set 6-4.
"I feel like I gave it everything I had out there," Davenport said. "But every time the chips were down for Venus, she played unbelievable."
Winning the tiebreaker pushed Davenport to her third straight three-set match. There, leading 3-2, Davenport's back stiffened up. But she still broke Williams to take a 4-2 lead. Williams broke back, but Davenport had the advantage having served first. Leading 5-4, Davenport earned a championship point on Williams' serve. But Williams fought the loss off.
"It was just a tough moment for both of us," Williams said of staring down the barrel of losing a Wimbledon semifinal. "Even that last shot, I think it was just a tad bit over the net. I kind of hit it all wrong, but it went in."
Later in the third set, at three different occasions, Davenport had 15-30 on the Williams serve -- two points away from the championship -- but couldn't put Williams away. She would end up regretting.
Finally, with the match tied 7-7 in the third, Williams broke Davenport and was serving for the match. She quickly jumped out to a 40-love lead and, after nearly three hours of drama, had triple championship point.
Fittingly enough, Williams double faulted, her 10th double fault of the match.
But then, on the next point, Davenport's return smacked squarely into the net and Williams was again a champion.
When it was finally over, emotion poured form every single muscle, every single bone in Williams' body. She jumped up and down like a human pogo stick, her knees eventually caving in and dragging Williams to the ground. There, she kneeled for a few seconds before standing up and giggling uncontrollably. She jumped up and down some more. She laughed some more. She smiled so more. Her sheepish grin was one of embarrassment, of, "how did I just do that?"
"When I get excited I just can't help myself," she said an hour-and-a-half after the match had concluded, her smile still beaming. "I just show it all."
It was an impressive range of emotions. Seconds after staring down Davenport like the fiercest, fire-breathing competitor, Williams looked like a little girl who wanted nothing more than a gumball machine and a puppy for Christmas.
When the week began, Williams was dodging reporters' questions about her love for tennis. They wondered if she should be here. Whispered that, as the 14th seed, she was again going to be a non-factor. But by the end, the questions had shifted to the incredible mental resiliency she showed here on Saturday.
"This is special," she said. "I was the 14th seed. I wasn't supposed to win. I guess whoever put a bet on me really came in good on that.
"But I always bet on myself."
From here on out, so should everyone else.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.