Venus Williams was back at home yesterday. Not in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida, where she shares a house with her sister, Serena, but in the London premises she has made her own ever since walking through the doors for the first time 12 years ago.
With the possible exception of Roger Federer, nobody has reason to love the All England Lawn Tennis Club quite like Williams. She is not alone in winning Wimbledon five times, but the tournament never dominated the careers of Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, the three other women who have performed that feat since the war, in quite the same way. King won six Grand Slam titles away from Wimbledon, Navratilova nine and Graf a remarkable 15. Williams has won just two, the last of them eight years ago at the US Open.
"I just love Wimbledon," she said yesterday after a practice session at the All England Club. "I have true love in my heart and when you have true love you do your best and nothing can stop you."
Williams' five replica trophies from Wimbledon are dotted all around her American home, where she also keeps a number of other mementoes, including a collection of All England Club towels dating back to 1997. She loves Wimbledon's traditions but also respects the changing face of the most famous tournament in tennis.
"Since I've been here they've stopped the curtsy, they have a new roof, a new Court Two and they've changed the start time to 1pm from 2pm," she said. "A lot of things have changed here, but it's all for the good. This tournament is all about tradition. It's a great feeling to be here."
As she prepared for her 13th successive appearance at the All England Club, Williams recalled her first, in 1997, when she lost to Poland's Magdalena Grzybowska, the world No 91, in the first round. "I didn't play until the Saturday because it rained for ever," Williams said. "The match didn't go so well. It was tough. I think I was nervous. I didn't know how to win. I had chances, but I just didn't know what to do."
Having never played in the Wimbledon junior tournament, it was Williams' first visit. What had she made of the All England Club? "I guess I thought it was cool."
Richard Williams, Venus' and Serena's father, had talked to his girls about Wimbledon when he taught them how to play tennis on crumbling public courts in Compton, California. "When we were growing up he would tell us to pick a Slam that we wanted to win, one that we would try to win more times than any other," Venus said. "I picked Wimbledon – and so did Serena. She was always copying me. My Dad told her to pick another tournament."
Why Wimbledon? "It seemed like the best one, I guess. I don't know what was in my small head at the time, but I guess it was romantic. I wanted to win Wimbledon."
Venus remembers Zina Garrison, one of only a handful of black women players who have enjoyed success at Wimbledon, reaching the final in 1990, when she beat Monica Seles and Graf before losing to Navratilova. "We were out training at Compton and I remember this guy who would come by with his dog and tell us the scores. He'd tell us that Zina had beaten Monica and beaten so-and-so. We didn't always get to see the matches, but we'd hear the scores and we watched the final."
One year after her Wimbledon debut Williams reached the quarter-finals, losing to Jana Novotna, who went on to win the title. Two years later Graf knocked Venus out at the same stage. Three years later she won the tournament for the first time, beating Martina Hingis in the quarter-finals, Serena in the semi-finals and Lindsay Davenport in the final.
The semi-final was her fifth match against Serena – they have since played 15 times more with their head-to-head record tied at 10-10 – and Venus saw the victory as a turning point in her career. "I was just telling Serena the other day that when I was riding home in the car after that match I just thought to myself: 'I'm going to win Wimbledon.'
"I just knew I was going to win. I had to win that tournament. Even before I got there I was thinking that. It was my tournament. It was my turn and I was going to win. When I told Serena this the other day she said: 'Wow! I didn't know that.' I told her: 'I just had to win.'
"The funny thing is that going into that final I'd only won three of my 13 matches against Davenport. But I didn't care what the record was. If it was three in 1,000 I was still going to win. It was my turn. I was very determined."
Ten of the Williams sisters' meetings have been in Grand Slam tournaments – evidence of how much they concentrate their efforts on the four majors – and four of them at Wimbledon, the last three in finals. Serena won in 2002 and 2003, while Venus triumphed last year in their best contest yet at the All England Club, the older sister recovering to win 7-5, 6-4 after trailing 0-2 and 0-30.
"She came out playing so well I could hardly get a point," Venus remembered. "I thought: 'It's going to be over quick.' I was just thinking to myself: 'If I can hit a 120mph serve and if she can hit a winner then I can't do anything about that.' I just thought: 'Let me just do the best I can.' She was just playing so well that I didn't know whether I could win or not. I managed to get a game, then another one after that, then it was over."
Later that afternoon the sisters went out and won the women's doubles title. In the evening they went out together for "a nice dinner". What did they talk about? "Nothing really," Venus said. "We don't talk about tennis. Just nonsense. Fun stuff."
Williams' game is made for grass. Her big serve – she broke the Wimbledon women's record with a 129mph thunderbolt in last year's final – and booming ground strokes fly off the turf, while her athleticism and wingspan enable her to dominate at the net. "In essence I'm a baseliner, though I can serve and volley as well," she said.
She would prefer the courts to be as quick as they were 10 years ago, but it has not stopped her dominating: she has won three titles at the All England Club in the last four years. "I would like them faster, but I don't complain," she said. "I just keep playing, whether they've slowed down or not."
Venus and Serena always name each other as their biggest rival. It is a widely held view within the game that there is a vacuum beneath the sisters, particularly after the retirements of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters (who returns later this summer) and the shoulder injury suffered by Maria Sharapova, but Venus believes the quality at the top of the game is improving all the time. "I think everyone's better," she said. "Everyone's stronger, physically and mentally. The women are taller now. I'm not the tallest out there. The competition level's better, but you've got to expect that. Everyone gets better."
Williams celebrated her 29th birthday on Wednesday. In the women's game in particular those who flower early in their careers can wilt more quickly than most, but the Wimbledon champion has no intention of retiring for a good while yet. "I plan to be here many years to come. I'm quite strong, good genetics. I love what I do and I'm going to keep enjoying it until I just can't do it any more."
She added: "I always try to get better. I try to add something new to my game in general. I think with my style of game I probably dictate what is going on so it's up to me if I win or lose most times. That's just my game."
Asked to name the highlight of her season, she replied: "The highlight is Wimbledon, or if it's an Olympic year it's that. It's my favourite. In 2016 I'm going to try and play doubles. I love the Olympics. I go into withdrawal when it's finished. I just can't believe the dream is over. I love it. I'll be 36 [in 2016]. I can play doubles. I know I can do that."
Next generation: Women aiming for the top
Victoria Azarenka (Belarus)
Age: 19. World ranking: 8
Won her third Tour singles title in Miami three months ago, defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serena Williams to claim her biggest prize yet. Reached first Grand Slam quarter-final at French Open, losing to eventual finalist Dinara Safina.
Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark)
Age: 18. World ranking: 9
Born in Odense, Denmark, of Polish parents. Father was a professional footballer and mother played volleyball for Poland. She is a consistent performer who has already won four Tour events, the most recent at Ponte Vedra Beach. Not to be confused with Canada's Aleksandra Wozniak, the world No 23.
Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland)
Age: 20. World ranking: 11
Won junior Wimbledon in 2005 and broke into senior top 10 last year with three tournament victories, including Eastbourne. Reached quarter-finals of Wimbledon and Australian Open in 2008 but considers clay her best surface. Younger sister Urszula is also former junior Wimbledon champion.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Russia)
Age: 17. World ranking: 30
Won three Grand Slam junior titles and made breakthrough at senior level last year, beating No 17 seed Alizé Cornet at Wimbledon. Climbed into world's top 30 this year by reaching semi-finals at Indian Wells, beating Jelena Jankovic and Agnieszka Radwanska.
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