As is normally the way of it in sport, a very good big 'un proved too strong for a highly promising little 'un yesterday, Venus Williams overwhelming the diminutive Justine Henin in the first and third sets to retain her women's singles title 6-1, 3-6, 6-0.
The Belgian teenager's audacious habit of allowing her opponents a set's start, then swatting them in the third, had become as much of a trademark this Wimbledon as her white baseball cap and classical backhand. Williams, however, is not Kristie Boogert, Anke Huber or even Jennifer Capriati and was not standing for any of that nonsense. Broken for the only time in the match, to costly effect, after a 20-minute rain delay midway through the second set, the champion raced through the third as the weather worsened, keen that her renewed momentum should not be interrupted. The outcome was the first 6-0 set in the women's final since Martina Navratilova blew away the teenaged Andrea Jaeger 18 years ago.
Jaeger was burnt out soon after that trauma; Henin has the mental as well as physical tenacity to come again, as her comebacks in previous rounds prove. On another day, if the backhand worked as fluently as normal, greater confidence allowed her to come to the net more often and the luck was more evenly distributed, the scoreline would have been less lopsided. The result, however, was the right one, as Henin immediately admitted in her on-court interview in front of a crowd who have still not quite clasped Williams to their bosom.
"She played better than me today," said the Belgian, who at 19 was Wimbledon's sixth youngest finalist (only Martina Hingis of the other five won). "I will come back for sure next year, maybe to win the tournament. It's unbelievable to be No 5 in the world after I was 45 at beginning of the year. I'll try to keep working and go further."
While Richard Williams continued to do his bit for Kodak shares – lucky the chemist who gets the order for his Wimbledon films – his daughter celebrated in more sedate fashion than a year ago, though she claimed that this triumph meant more.
"I had to work a lot harder to win this one," Venus said. "In my first rounds I was really not playing very well. So for me it was a real effort. Maybe it was just experience that came through, or maybe she was a little nervous in the third. But I'm happy it went my way. She's played very well and has played a lot of gutsy matches. If she just keeps playing the way she is, good things are bound to happen."
Centre Court's natural tendency to support the underdog – unless it is an animal snapping at Tim Henman – can only have been enhanced by the sight of the players striding out soon after Henman's demise, Henin looking about the size of Williams' legs, and every bit of seven inches shorter overall. When the first of several net-cords dribbled apologetically on to the Belgian's side to set up Williams' first break at 3-1, sympathies only hardened. They were further emphasised by the rare sound of booing as a dubious call spared the American a double-fault, the umpire Jane Harvey declining to over-rule.
Henin went a second break down afterwards, her backhand and then forehand letting her down on successive points, and Williams served out for 6-1, to decidedly restrained applause. The champion had begun the set with two double faults, but won it in no more than 20 minutes.
Remembering, no doubt, the pattern of those previous matches and Williams' occasional habit of mentally switching off, Henin came out to play three much more effective service games and led 3-2 when light rain brought the tennis equivalent of a half-time interval. Taking the opportunity to consult her coach of five years, the Argentinian Carlos Rodriguez – and possibly statistics showing that Williams had won 10 points at the net to Henin's one – she resumed aggressively and latched on to a double fault, setting up and converting her first break points of the match to lead 5-3. The crowd were now producing a roar for every winning shot the Belgian made, and none received louder acclaim than the volley at the net which brought her level at a set apiece.
It seemed impossible that that would be the last game Henin won, but so it proved; come the third set, it was a different match again. "I was very relaxed at that time, very loose and ready to go," Williams said. And off she went. First game, and two more favourable net cords; in the second, her opponent made two unforced errors and was suddenly a critical break down; the champion moved up another gear with a 118mph serve, her fastest of the match, and went 3-0 up with a smash at the net that must have dented the turf.
At 0-4 with umbrellas up and the referee, Alan Mills, lurking, Henin could have done with another break – in any sense. She sportingly declined to appeal to the umpire and in no time at all was facing match point and being pushed off balance by the force of a Williams forehand.
The first champion to retain her crown since Steffi Graf five years ago decided against reprising last year's victory dance. "I couldn't leap around because of the rain, I didn't want to fall," she said. There have been few slips this Wimbledon for the older Williams, who had not conceded a set until the semi-final against Lindsay Davenport.
Despite winning three of the last five Grand Slam events (two Wimbledons and the US Open), she still finds Hingis, who has not won one for two-and-a-half years, ranked No 1 in the world. Asked how keen she was to top the chart for the first time, Williams replied: "It's on the top list now, maybe in the past it wasn't. I have to make it a priority and play more. And I'm going to practise more." Big 'uns and little 'uns alike have been warned.Reuse content