Brian Viner: Empires crumble but Williams reveals beguiling truth in wonderful comeback

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The Independent Online

Four years ago this week I sat in the cheap seats high up in the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, watching Venus and Serena Williams contest the final of the Australian Open. It was my first time at a Grand Slam tennis final away from Wimbledon's lawns, and I should have been quivering with excitement, but if I quivered with anything it was heat exhaustion. Outside the Rod Laver Arena, the temperature had reached a tarmac-melting 44 degrees, and when later that same day I hotfooted it over to the nearby Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch a day-night international between Australia and England, I did so all too literally.

The prospect of watching a one-day cricket match at the MCG was a genuine thrill, but the prospect of watching the Williams sisters slug it out in a big final, frankly, was not. They had met in four out of the previous five Grand Slam finals, Serena prevailing in all except the 2001 US Open. In the article I filed the following day for these pages, I reported that the fourth all-Williams final in as many Grand Slams was singularly lacking in atmosphere even with the crowd's noise amplified under the retracting roof that had been closed to stop us all being fried.

"Denied competitors of different nationalities or even different families," I wrote, "the final was also denied the partisanship that gives these occasions their electricity. Only the appearance of Serena's grunt, if a grunt can be said to appear, was the point at which a semblance of partisanship did finally envelop the Rod Laver Arena. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be rooting for Venus for, as the young Monica Seles found to her chagrin, tennis crowds almost always side against the grunt. Alas, though, it was too late. Serena, the favourite, lifted the trophy."

At that moment it seemed, dispiritingly, as though major finals were destined to be Williams family affairs for years to come. At Wimbledon a few months later they duly met again, with Serena again victorious. By then, we were no longer astounded by the fact that two sisters should turn up in the final of just about every Grand Slam, merely bored. And yet sport, mercifully, is nothing if not unpredictable. Going into this year's Australian Open, Serena seemed to have about the same chance of winning as Venus, and Venus wasn't playing.

The only person who gave Serena a prayer was Serena, much to the annoyance of Pat Cash, writing in the International Herald Tribune. He was quite scathing about the younger sister's bullish remarks about reaching the top again in the light of her preoccupation with fashion and acting, and the commensurate slump in her ability to play good tennis.

"If anybody is qualified to make deluded statements about tennis," he wrote, "it is a former world No 1 and winner of seven Grand Slam titles. But when Serena Williams arrives in Australia on her first foreign playing trip in a year and announces that it is only a matter of time before she is again dominating the sport, it's time to tell her to get real. Tennis is unforgiving. You can't let it slide down the list of priorities, only to realise suddenly that playing the sport was what you wanted to do all along..."

You can, it seems, if you are Serena Williams. She has got real, and the reality is that at the time of writing she has gone almost all the way, and at the time of reading, has perhaps lifted the trophy itself. Of course, Cash can hardly be blamed for reaching the same conclusion as just about every other tennis expert, which is what makes Serena's anything-but-serene progress to today's final against Maria Sharapova so gloriously uplifting.

If I'd thought about it as I sat frantically fanning myself that day in the Rod Laver Arena, I would have reckoned that it would be a lot longer than four years before Serena Williams, who had only turned 21 three months before, was not even seeded in Melbourne.

In fact, not only was there no Williams sister seeded this year, there was, for the first time in the Open era, no seeding for any of their female compatriots. When you consider that five out of the seven champions in Melbourne since 2000 have been American (Serena Williams twice, Jennifer Capriati twice, and Lindsay Davenport), that, too, is a remarkable statistic.

But what it all goes to emphasise is what we all know but keep forgetting, that sport is only predictable in hindsight. Dominance falters; empires crumble; superheroes wilt. Absurd as it sounds, Tiger Woods will one day join Roger Federer in the rank and file of has-beens, while Cricket Australia and Manchester United will wonder how it all fell apart. That is not mere wishful thinking, it is informed thinking. In the mean time, we should all see in the rise, fall and rise of Serena Williams a manifestation of what is so beguiling about sport.

Within certain parameters - for instance I know that Dagenham & Redbridge are never going to win the Champions' League - you just never, ever know. And come to think of it, given a few decades and a Roman Abramovich, Dagenham & Redbridge just might.

Who I Like This Week...

The wonderfully genial Kim Clijsters, more popular with the Melbourne crowd even than their compatriot, her former fiance Lleyton Hewitt. Regrettably, the support of the crowd wasn't enough to get her through her Australian Open semi-final against Maria Sharapova in what she intends to be her last appearance in the event before giving up top-level professional tennis to start a family. I admire the Belgian for all sorts of things, not least for reviving the exquisitely old-fashioned practice of giving up one's job to "start a family" or, as people used to put it, "to try for a baby". Are they - she and her American fiancé Brian Lynch - intending to try round the clock?

And Who I Don't

Terry Wogan, who on his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show stuck a boot or perhaps a Hush Puppy into Andy Murray, suggesting that the fiery Scot was reminiscent of the young John McEnroe, except without quite as much charm. I'm a big fan of Wogan, and consider him the perfect morning antidote after half an hour of wincing at the self-important Today programme, but he of all people should stay above the peculiarly British habit of kicking a man when he's up. Sure, Murray showed some flashes of petulance in his marvellous match against Rafael Nadal, but he brought us more good cheer from Australia in five enthralling sets than England's cricketers have managed in an entire tour.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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