Marathon woman Venus ascendant again

Women's final: Williams takes third All England title with exhausting triumph in true test of stamina and strength

Davenport, having missed a match point at 5-4 in a third set which lasted 78 minutes, was destined not to repeat the title she won here six years ago, while Williams has now won three times in the past six years. As a last Davenport forehand rattled into the netting Williams leapt high into the air and after accepting the appropriately-named Venus Rosewater Dish from the Duke of Kent she indulged in more leaps of sheer joy. And who can blame her after the pain and misery she has endured in coming back from long spells of injury and poor form to capture the greatest prize in the women's game as the 14th seed.

Because of the overrunning of the men's semi-final between Andy Roddick and Thomas Johansson, the women's finalists arrived on court 45 minutes behind the scheduled time to a muted reception, since Centre Court spectators were taking a breather or a meal break.

Williams, smart in a white visor, led the way on to the court, which helped to dispel, at least in part, the greyness of a drab afternoon. It was an occasion which called for a spangly presence, someone like the golden-shoed Maria Sharapova. She, alas, had been seen off by Williams in the semi-finals.

The two finalists are old adversaries, with 26 previous matches played, so not only was there little in the way of surprise tactics but not a deal in the way of excitement. Just testing deep groundstrokes from each side of the net, the metronomic rhythm broken when Williams suddenly threw in a pair of double-faults and dropped serve with a wild backhand in the third game.

In a match being conducted almost entirely from the baseline, Williams struggled for anything like the form which had hustled Sharapova out and she suffered another service break to fall 5-2 behind.

As if she had been prodded by an angry relative, Williams woke up to the danger and proceeded to reel off the next nine points and closed the gap to 5-4. The surge was not maintained, however. Errors replaced those sparkling winners. A Williams forehand driven beyond the baseline took Davenport to set point and a forehand service return into the net by Williams clinched the set for the Californian after 33 minutes.

Davenport had worried aloud before the match about the disastrous consequences of "spraying" her shots. She need not have worried, because Williams was a match for her in this department as she struggled to assemble her best tennis in the second set. In the fifth game Williams, again pitched into trouble by a pair of double-faults, faced two break points but squeaked clear of danger with what was clearly a strategy of running Davenport from side to side at speed, an exercise she is not built for and which was to have serious consequences.

With the score locked at 4-4, a Williams serve which landed in the wrong service court but which was still allowed to stand enraged Davenport, who marched up to the British umpire, Gerry Armstrong. First informing that if she were that poor an umpire she would not dare show her face on court. Then the unfortunate Armstrong got both barrels: "You don't have the guts to overrule when you see it out," she said. The unsettling effect of that promptly produced a crisis which almost enveloped Davenport, who double-faulted to go set point down at 4-5. Williams wasted the opening with a forehand error and Davenport was off the hook for the time being.

In a match which was now rivetting by virtue of its wild swings, Davenport broke for a 6-5 lead. Another Williams double-fault paved the way, and then she slipped on the baseline pursuing the break point. Serving for the match, Davenport was broken without managing to rescue a single point. Still on a roll, Williams swept 5-1 ahead in the consequent tie-break, and levelled the match by winning it seven points to four with an emphatic forehand.

The running slog that this final had developed into began to take visible toll on Davenport early in the third set. However, she hung in gamely, relying on Williams to produce one of her dire spells. This duly arrived when Williams struck a forehand wide to be broken for the fourth time. Standing in the entrance hall of glory, Davenport aimed for what would have been a 5-2 lead and the virtual certainty of the title. Instead, she was broken and called for the trainer.

After being treated off court for a back strain, Davenport returned, clearly in pain and distressed. Her only hope was to shorten the points, hit or bust. In keeping with the nature of this final, it was Williams who almost bust, going match point down with the most dismal of double-faults at 4-5. Again she squeaked clear to level at 5-5, but a hobbling Davenport somehow concocted another winning game on serve to prise open the glory gates once more. Again Williams skated within two points of disaster before levelling at 6-6 in a set which would have to be fought to the death rather than ended by another tie-break.

At 6-7 Williams wobbled yet again, two points from oblivion, but she fought back noisily and brilliantly to stay alive. At 7-7 it was Davenport's turn to be pitched into trouble and she failed to escape, broken by a stunning Williams forehand. So, after two hours 40 minutes, Williams served for the championship - and, despite her 10th double-fault, she came through, earning an embrace from her sporting and gallant opponent.

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