Triumph allows Venus to reflect on bleaker days

Her last appearance in a Wimbledon singles final was in 2003, when she lost for the second year in a row to her younger sister, Serena. Venus, who had an abdominal strain, would not have made it to that final if her half-sister, Yetunde, had not urged her to finish her semi-final against Kim Clijsters after she had left the court for treatment.

Less than two months later, Yetunde, 31, the oldest of five siblings - "our nucleus and our rock" - was shot dead in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, where Venus and Serena first learned to play tennis on park courts.

"We had so much fun the last year," Venus recalled. "Yetunde was cooking us fried chicken. She made it better than my mom, because my mom wouldn't use salt. We're just happy for the good times."

There were precious few good times for the Williams family in the aftermath of Yetunde's death, only injuries, a loss of form, and speculation that the amazing tennis sisters were moving towards careers outside the game.

Serena may have imagined she had quashed the rumours by winning the Australian Open last January, defeating a wilting Lindsay Davenport in the final.

The whispers persisted, however, and it was left to the 25-year-old Venus to stomp on them the on world's most famous Centre Court with, firstly, an electrifying win against the defending champion Maria Sharapova in the semi-finals, and then with a victor's role against Davenport, the world No 1, in Saturday's incredible final, 4-6, 7-6, 9-7.

To do so, the 14th-seeded Williams first had to save a match point with a hefty backhand drive into a corner of the court when she was down 5-4, 30-40 in the final set. "I hit it all wrong, but it just went in," she said. "Maybe it was just the effort that kept it in."

Of such shots legends are made. Williams subsequently went on to become only the fourth woman in Wimbledon history to come back from match point down to win the singles final. The last was Helen Wills Moody against Helen Jacobs in 1935.

Davenport's chance at match point came after two hours and 11 minutes, when the 29-year-old American was struggling for mobility after treatment to her lower back following the seventh game of the set.

The duel continued until Davenport hit a forehand into the net on Williams's second set point in the 16th game after two hours 45 minutes, which was the longest women's final in Wimbledon history, 17 minutes longer than Margaret Court's win in 1970 against Billie Jean King, a game that ended 14-12, 11-9.

Davenport, as gracious in defeat as she was tenacious on the court, said she did not lose because of injury but because her opponent "played unbelievably every time the chips were down".

The most spectacular point of the match came with Williams serving at 15-30 when 7-6 down, a frantic 25-shot rally that ended with Williams pounding a forehand cross-court drive to deny Davenport two more match points. For a set and a half there was no suggestion of the drama that would unfold. Venus played poorly in the opening set, and her game only came alive after she broke Davenport as the American served for the match at 6-5 in the second set and went on to win the tie-break, 7-4.

None the less, the burgeoning standard of play on both sides of the net and the suspense of the final set convinced Steve Flink, the American author of The 100 Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century, that it would rank in the top 20 in a revised edition incorporating the first five years of the 21st Century. "It was," said Flink, "the best women's final I've seen in 40 years of coming to Wimbledon."

As the messages on Williams's mobile continued to accumulate, she said she was grateful to the people who had stood by her in darker days. "The most annoying part," she said, "was the fact that when you're playing your best, doing your best at whatever it is, so many people want to be on your side.

"But if things get a little tough, or you don't win every match, there's so many people who want to put you down, so many people who thrive on negativity. We were never allowed to say 'can't' at all at our house."

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