Continuing in the footsteps of Althea Gibson, the first great African-American tennis player, Venus Williams has an opportunity to make a successful defence of the women's singles title tomorrow, having defeated Lindsay Davenport in a reprise of last year's final.
Gibson, who defeated her compatriot Darlene Hard in the 1957 final, and Britain's Angela Mortimer in 1958, campaigned in the amateur era, when there was no opportunity to bank millions in prize money and millions more from endorsements.
Earlier this year, however, Gibson did feature on a cereal packet, a rare example, perhaps, of a pioneer catching a shaft of light from the dazzling rays illuminating her successors.
Strong, athletic and dominating though she was, Gibson never hit a serve at Wimbledon recorded at 125mph. Radar speed guns were not in vogue in her day, nor were synthetic rackets. Williams equalled her 1998 Wimbledon record of 125mph yesterday with a similar delivery against Davenport (Williams' world record, 127mph, was an ace on match point against Mary Pierce in Zurich in 1998).
Williams stands 6ft 1in, one and a half inches shorter than Davenport, the 1999 champion. Given the statistics, Belgium's Justine Henin, 5ft 5 and three-quarter inches, could be excused for replacing her cap with a crash helmet before facing Williams tomorrow.
What makes the final fascinating, however, is that Henin, while respectful, does not look up to opponents in the psychological sense, as she showed in beating Jennifer Capriati yesterday. Moreover, the Belgian defeated Williams, 6-1, 6-4, in their only previous match, on a slow clay court at the German Open.
While presenting Williams with a contrast in stature and style, Henin may also make a tighter match of it than Davenport did yesterday. Williams won, 6-2, 6-7, 6-1, but the final set was not nearly as exciting as the conclusion to the second set had promised. Williams was in control as much in the third set as she had been in the first, when Davenport made an almost embarrassing range of errors.
Davenport, in common with Williams, has struggled for continuity of form because of knee injuries, and perhaps it was too much to expect that her revival in Eastbourne after ten weeks away from the courts would prime her for the sharp end of a major championship.
She was broken for 1-3 in the opening set, after which Williams boomed down the 125mph ace on the first point of the fifth game. Davenport lost her serve again at 1-5, the set ending after only 26 minutes. The second set followed a similar pattern, Williams breaking for 3-1 and holding for 4-1. But in the next game, Williams double-faulted to 15-15, twice netted shots from Davenport's returns, and then fired a backhand long to be broken.
Davenport held for 4-4, but missed a forehand after creating a break point in the next game. Williams, off the hook, made an opening to end the contest on her first match point at 5-4, but Davenport responded with a solid serve and went on take control in the tie-break, Williams double-faulting for 1-7.
The spectators had hardly settled down in anticipation of a big finish before Davenport was 0-3 down. Williams attacked her opponent's serve in the opening game, creating a break point at 30-30 with a backhand drive, and a subequent rally ended with Davenport hitting a forehand long. Having won the first three points on Davenport's serve in the third game, Williams broke again, hitting a backhand down the line.
It came as a surprise that Williams's run of games should be interrupted, but her serve wavered for a couple of instants, and she double-faulted after hitting an ace at 30-15 and double-faulted again on Davenport's third break point for 3-1. That proved to be no more than a blip. The defending champion broke back for 4-1 and completed her afternoon's work with an angled backhand volley that kissed the net-cord after an hour and 47 minutes.
"It seemed like I didn't start any set off very well," Davenport said. "I wish I knew why. That first game in the third set was huge, to keep [the momentum going]. I didn't get that. Then, obviously, she has a lot of confidence serving. It seems like I shot myself in the foot by making a few errors and let it all die right in the beginning of the third."
Williams, in search of her third Grand Slam title, was undaunted by the prospect of meeting Henin. "It seems that when it comes to the larger matches I'm able to raise the level of my game to a really high degree," she said. "I don't want to go home without carrying a plate or a trophy or a title or something. So I think that's motivation enough for me. I love winning here. Once you win here, it's pretty addictive."
Williams said she had been told by her mother Oracene never to underestimate anyone. "You have to be playing pretty good tennis to get to the finals of a Wimbledon. That says a lot. So I'm going to be out there hopefully serving like I did today.
"I think I'm playing as well, maybe even better at this point in the semi-final than last year in the semi-finals," she said. "So for me that's really exciting."
The only problem for Williams, it seems, is her lack of motivation for practising. "Sometimes it's hard to practise because I get a little bored with practising. It's not always fun. I think some of the champions like Steffi Graf or Ivan Lendl that's where they really excelled... Maybe I have to get the same attitude."Reuse content