Saturday's women's final should be a masterpiece


WIMBLEDON, England -- So, who says you can't turn back the clock? Lindsay Davenport and Venus Williams have reversed the calendar at Wimbledon five years, an eternity in a sport and era that glorify instant gratification. They will meet Saturday in a belated sequel to the ladies' singles final of 2000, when Williams dethroned Davenport to win the first of her two successive titles. No matter who triumphs this time, we are guaranteed a sweetly sentimental occasion. The 2005 Queen of the Centre Court will reclaim a crown few people thought either of these former champions would wear again.

Williams reached her first Grand Slam tournament final since Wimbledon 2003 on Thursday, ending the reign of 18-year-old Maria Sharapova, 7-6 (2), 6-1, in a blaze of incandescent shot making that lit up the Centre Court on a damp and dark evening. Davenport joined her Friday afternoon, needing only seven points to close out Amelie Mauresmo, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-4, in a suspenseful semifinal suspended overnight by rain with Mauresmo serving at 3-5, 15-0 in the final set.

Now the only two left standing are Davenport, who a year ago at this time was so filled with professional self-doubt that she was contemplating retirement and starting a family, and Williams, who never accepted the conventional wisdom that she was incapable of reaching the tennis heavens again.

"I'm pretty much in the moment right now. Most of all I feel I deserve to be where I am," Williams said on Friday, sitting in Wimbledon's main interview room wearing a yellow T-shirt, cream-colored jockey-style cap, and violet earrings so big and dangling they could almost serve as wind chimes. "For me, there were never any doubts. So in that way, it's not a surprise … For me, it's just very natural."

Davenport deserves to be in the final, too. She spent a nervous night wondering if she could regain the superiority of serve and momentum she had established in the final set against Mauresmo when rain interrupted her ascent and left their business unfinished. To have a Wimbledon semifinal suspended overnight at such a late stage Davenport described as "brutal" and "mentally challenging to absorb." But after a fitful evening, she slept well. Mauresmo did not. And after Mauresmo held serve at love, so did Davenport, booming four straight first serves to finish matters swiftly and surely.

Yes, it is fitting for both Davenport and Williams to be in this final. There are many so many parallels in their games, and in their careers. Davenport is 6-foot-2, Williams 6-1. Twin towers of power tennis, with robust serves and a preference for hammering opponents with heavy groundstrokes from the baseline, but with the will and skill to make their way to net and win points by volleying as well as rallying.

So many mirror images -- and yet so many differences and distortions, too. They have met 26 times, dating back to 1997. The rivalry has veered wildly in one woman's favor and then the other's. Davenport's four straight victories the past two years gave her back the career edge, 14-12. Williams' last win was in 2003, in the quarterfinals here.

Davenport -- champion of the U.S. Open in 1998, Wimbledon in 1999, the Australian Open in 2000 -- openly discussed quitting after The Championships last year because she thought winning Grand Slam titles was beyond her. Venus insists she never felt that way about herself, but many folks jumped to that conclusion and questioned her commitment. A two-year effort to regain some semblance of the form that brought her both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2000 and 2001 finally blossomed this week on the grass courts of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. It has been an astonishing reawakening, her attacking game blossoming like Wimbledon's brilliant flowers bursting into bloom as spring turns to summer.

Following her Wimbledon of self-doubt last year, Davenport cut a swath through the U.S. hard-court season and regained the No. 1 world ranking. She fell in the semis of the 2004 U.S. Open to Svetlana Kuznetsova and in the final of this year's Australian Open to Serena Williams, Venus's younger sister, but came back to the sport's ultimate shrine seeded No. 1, knowing she is capable of occupying the throne again at age 29.

Now the 2000 final seems like a millennium ago, in tennis time. That was before the Russian Revolution brought us Sharapova, Kuznetsova and Anastasia Myskina winning major titles. Back when Venus beat Davenport, 6-3, 7-6 (3) five years ago, it appeared to be her coronation, but the reign lasted only two years. Serena beat her older sister to take the 2002 French Open title and went on to dominate her in the finals of five of six majors in 2003 and '04. Then injuries, and perhaps uncertain focus, put Venus in partial eclipse.

She came into this Wimbledon seeded No. 14, ranked 16th in the world, at age 25, expected to lose to Serena in the fourth round. But it was Serena, the No. 4 seed, who didn't get there. On Thursday, Venus played like a dream to oust Sharapova, who had ended Serena's tenure as Wimbledon champion in last year's final.

At the end of Thursday's match, Venus leapt high in the air, her smile lighting up the misty twilight as glowingly as her tennis had. She bounded up and down, a portrait of energy and exuberance. Asked when was the last time she enjoyed such a celebratory leap, she said, "That's my Green Day jump, inaugurated at the Green Day concert."

And when was the last time she exercised it on a tennis court? "I don't remember," she said, revealingly.

She was asked to describe the obvious internal combustion that drove her to new heights -- no, back to old heights -- at this Wimbledon, and particularly in her smashing semifinal against Sharapova. What is the secret of her motivation?

"Because I like what I do, I really do," she said. "I want to be the best at what I do. I feel like I have a rare opportunity in my life, at this moment in time right now in women's tennis, to be the best. I feel like I have to take those opportunities and live my life with no regrets."

Now listen to Davenport: "This is what we play for, to try and win Grand Slams. I've done a great job of competing at the Grand Slams the last year, I just haven't won any of them. I've come through a very tough draw here playing a lot of good players. To be in the finals and to come through these tough matches is pretty exhilarating … I know this is a great opportunity. I haven't been in a final in a number of years here at Wimbledon. I'm just excited about it."

There does seem to be a bit of destiny at work here. Davenport had to vanquish Kim Clijsters in the fourth round, Kuznetsova in the quarters, and Mauresmo -- whose game is so stylistically different from most of the other top women, all slice and change of pace and work your way to the net. World-class opponents, all.

Williams, meanwhile, came though the half of the draw convulsed when French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne lost in the first round and Serena Williams fell at the third hurdle. Sharapova vs. Williams in the semis was what the seeding suggested, but it was supposed to be Serena, not Venus.

Asked if she thought it was good for the game to have Venus rising in the tennis firmament again, Davenport said: "It's great. I mean, she's definitely been struggling for two years or so, since she's been back from injury. A lot of people have been not the most positive about her game. She's come back here, she feels comfortable on grass. Her side of the draw just kind of opened up."

And now they are back in the final, a fitting place to resume a rivalry that has a history.

"I think I've played her by far more than anyone else I've ever played on the tour," Davenport said. "We've both gone through so many transitions from 1997, when we first played. In the beginning, I was always winning, then she was always winning. The last few times it's been me. But we both have kind of evolved quite a bit and still play these close, crazy matches. They're always pretty much in finals or semis. We've played a lot of tough matches over the years."

Saturday should be another close encounter. There are so many similarities in their games, but also some significant differences.

"We both hope to serve well and hold serve," Davenport said. "We both have big groundies. I think she definitely covers the court better than I do. She's a tremendous athlete. I think for me it's about being more consistent with my shots, not spraying a lot of balls. When you have two big hitters playing, we don't necessarily have a lot of rallies. It's a lot of short points. It's really about who serves and who gets the first hit in a rally."

"I think playing her is very similar to playing me," Williams said. "I'm probably going to get to a few more balls. I have a bigger serve … But definitely, it is somewhat like looking at me across the court."

Only one of them can win this "Back to the Future" final. Will it be a remake of 2000? Or a different ending? It will be fascinating to find out, and probably safe to say that both will come away Saturday with a new appreciation of the emotional dilemma posed in the lines of a Rudyard Kipling poem, which have traditionally been the last words a player sees before entering the Centre Court at Wimbledon: "If you can meet triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same … "

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.