Battle of the big sister brings out theatrical best from Williams

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Her opponent, Lindsay Davenport, had flirted with victory, and ultimately lived to rue her profligacy at vital moments. "She played so well," the victor said of Davenport, who in her disappointment, lip trembling as she looked on, was a model of graciousness and humility. "There were so many times when I had to work so hard to stay in the game. I just had to bring my level up."

She added: "You never know what life is going to throw at you and every day I just expect the sun to come up, that's all. There are so many stresses involved when you are on court, it's tough, believe me, but I couldn't have asked for a better career."

This was exhausting; just watching it was energy-expending as two heavyweights went the full number of rounds. Those who argue that women players are not equal to the men because their game does not possess the same physical demands had their argument ridiculed.

Never mind Big Brother. Centre Court's Battle of the Big Sister had considerably more to commend it for pure theatrics. It was brutal, unrelenting, absorbing, if, at times, not the most aesthetic spectacle, the contest broken only by a brief interval for Davenport to receive treatment for a back strain which almost certainly edged the verdict towards Williams. In the final set, after 150 minutes of highly combative tennis, the pair still managed to produce a 25-stroke rally.

This was considerably more than a consolation for those who had craved a dream final double of Roger and Shazza. That was not to be, and never was likely to be once the elder Williams sister got to work on the Russian on Thursday, much to the chagrin of a sizeable proportion of pubescent schoolboys.

A Maria Sharapova-less final this may have been, but Centre Court was still in thrall to a confrontation between the 14th- seeded Williams, 25, and the world No 1 Davenport, four years her senior, and against whom she had suffered four straight defeats.

It has been a period of renaissance for both players. Davenport had not won a Grand Slam for five years, and had been ushered by some observers towards her bathchair, even though she is 19 years shy of the still-competing Martina Navratilova. There had been a hiatus in the career of Williams after the death of her sister, Yetunde Price, in a gangland shooting two years ago. Her return from that trauma had also been restricted by injury to ankle and knee, with last year a non-event and this year looking as if it would be similarly barren as she struggled to ascend much higher in the world rankings than her lowest-ever 18.

The character who had dominated women's tennis for nearly three years at the start of the millennium - claiming two titles in a row at Wimbledon and four Grand Slam crowns in all - appeared content to play a support role to sister Serena, though, in truth, there had been much conjecture about the true ambition of both women.

The former world No 1 had maintained beforehand that there was a simple answer to her resurgence at a venue which she had once dominated. "I have been working hard - and hard work pays off," said Williams. "I have just played one round at a time, whoever I was playing, and did not worry about what was happening next - just what was happening in the moment. I am pretty much in the moment right now. I feel like I deserve to be where I am. For me there were never any doubts - it is just very natural."

It was Davenport rather than Williams whose physical wellbeing was suspect here in the third set, a chiropractor having to be called on court to manipulate her back. Undoubtedly then, Williams recognised that the opportunity to triumph was there; yet how magnificently her opponent took the match to her, this player who possesses such a slow turning circle that it has been suggested that never mind just the prize money, she should receive a mobility allowance.

Not that it impeded her progress here, until just after breaking Williams's serve in the final set, when the pain set in. The fact that she continued so valiantly says everything about her courage on an afternoon when she won on points, but fell for the knockout.