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Steve Flink - Venus takes charge

7/5/2008 8:42:00 AM

by Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON --- After Arthur Ashe had lost an agonizing five set U.S. Open final to Ilie Nastase in 1972 --- squandering a lead of two sets to one and 4-2 in the fourth --- he took the long walk back to the Clubhouse, moved briskly through the crowd, walked up the stairs at the West Side Tennis Club, and found some much needed privacy in the locker room. A few of his friends joined a despondent Ashe upstairs, and he told them, "I guess I wanted it too badly."
When Serena Williams lost the Wimbledon final today 7-5, 6-4 against her remarkable sister Venus, I found myself recollecting that poignant Ashe moment so long ago. In this case, Serena was commanding at the outset of this skirmish. The first couple of games, she was almost breathtaking, losing only one point, breaking Venus, bolting to a 2-0 lead. Her returns were scintillating in the opening game, and she did not miss a first serve in the second game. She seemed fully convinced she was going to win.

But Venus tenaciously kept herself in the set when it so easily could have slipped away quickly. At 0-2 --- having lost 10 of the first 11 points in the match --- she was down 0-30 but held on by approaching the net commandingly and displaying admirable touch on the drop volley. At 1-3, she was down break point. Had Serena converted here, the set would surely have her way. But Venus produced a gorgeous forehand drop volley angled winner off a well struck down the line backhand pass from Serena. Once more Venus gamely held on and prevented her sister from attaining a double service break lead.

Nevertheless, Serena held on for 4-2. She still seemed in charge. But Venus had other notions. She proceeded to win five of the next six games to take the set. After Venus had broken back to 4-4, Serena had two break points in the following game. Had she sealed either, Serena would have been serving for the set. But Serena demonstrably tightened up at that critical moment. On the first break point, she closed in for a backhand volley. Had she played it conventionally down the line, she probably would have succeeded, but she went for a drop volley which sat up, and Venus chased it down and passed Serena easily with a forehand down the line. Venus stifled Serena on the second break point with the depth of her forehand approach. The 28-year-old held on for 5-4.

With Serena trying to serve her way into a tie-break at 5-6, 30-30, her two-hander let her down on consecutive points and Venus had somehow taken a set she seemed almost certain to lose. By now, it was apparent that Serena was getting frazzled. Despite breaking for 2-1 in the second set in a seven deuce game, she could not make anything of the situation. Her nerves surfaced again when she netted a forehand drop volley at 2-1, 30-30, and she lost her serve and her momentum. Venus conceded only three points in her next three service games. The end was inevitable. At 4-5, serving to save the match, a pair of errant forehands from Serena put her at 15-30. And then Venus drove a potent two-hander down the line for a winner. Serena saved one match point with an ace at 15-40 but was off the mark with a two-hander on the next point, and that was that.

So what happened? Perhaps Serena, like Ashe at the 1972 Open, was almost too determined to win. And the conditions on Centre Court were not ideal. The wind was whipping around the stadium from start to finish. It blew forcefully. It blew unpredictably. It made the timing of ground strokes quite an ordeal. And Venus dealt with the elements much better than Serena. Her footwork was superior. Surprisingly, her ball control was far better than Serena’s, even off the forehand. And, most astonishing of all, Venus had indisputable edge on the second serve. She managed to get extraordinary depth on her second serve all through the battle. Serena converted only 2 of 13 break points, and missed too many returns that under ordinary circumstances she would make.

But all credit must go to Venus for serving and returning more convincingly than her younger sister. If any statistic told the technical story of the match, it was surely this: Serena won only 5 of 22 second serve points (23%) while Venus took 19 of her 34 points on the second delivery (56%). The second serve success rate numbers were even more striking in the second set, with Venus taking 12 of 19 points (63%) compared to Serena’s 4 of 12 points (33%). Day in and day out, major final in and major final out, across the board, Serena has always seemed to have a more effective second serve, but not so on this occasion. Not so at all.

For only the second time in seven head-to-head meetings in Grand Slam tournament finals, Venus defeated Serena. For the first time in three Wimbledon finals against each other, Venus was the victor. In the process, she drew even with Serena at 8-8 in their overall head-to-head series. On top of all that, Venus secured a seventh Grand Slam singles championship to move within one major of Serena. That is no small achievement, because Serena has won all four of the majors in her career, and seemed long overdue to collect a third Wimbledon singles title, and her first since stopping Venus in the 2003 championship match.

I was fully convinced that Serena was going to win this tennis tournament, and I was absolutely wrong. She had started 2008 with a disappointing loss to Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Then she went out and won her next three tournaments. Despite a less than stellar performance in a third round loss to Katarina Srebotnik at Roland Garros, the stage seemed set for a Serena revival on the lawns at the All England Club.

But she simply did not rise to the occasion, and Venus most certainly did. Venus has now won the world’s most prestigious championship three of the last four years, and five times in all. Her Wimbledon triumphs are the very definition of her greatness. Simply look at her victims in the five finals: defending champion Lindsay Davenport in 2000, the up and coming Justine Henin in 2001, Davenport (from match point down) in 2005, Marion Bartoli in 2007, and now none other than Serena Williams.

To be sure, the Bartoli win was not an extraordinary effort. But remember that Venus obliterated Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova on her way to that title match. So she has clearly demonstrated her capacity to rise to an occasion that surpasses all others in the game. And she did it this time after a mediocre season in 2008. In seven previous tournament appearances this season, she had not even reached a final. That is irrefutable evidence of a champion who knows how to elevate her game when it counts the most. It is proof that she is the third best grass court player of the modern era, right behind nine time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova and seven time titlist Steffi Graf.

So I can only admire Venus for her perspicacity and her resolve. I fully believed Serena would demonstrate that she remained the better big occasion player and even the superior grass court player. I felt she would be the one to raise her game up to the lofty level of the occasion. But Serena wasted an auspicious start, and seemed to slip into despondency thereafter. The crowd could sense it. The journalists saw it unfolding. And surely Venus recognized that her younger sister was not going to regroup after a dazzling beginning. To her everlasting credit, Venus displayed a ruthless edge in exploiting Serena’s sinking spirits. Perhaps, in the final analysis, Serena wanted this one too badly.

So I was off the mark with my prediction for this final. But that is what makes sports so enjoyable to follow. You never really know what is going to happen. You can only try to make an educated guess. It was that kind of Wimbledon for the women, a tournament filled with surprises and uncertainty, an event that caught many of us off guard from beginning to end. Venus Williams really surprised me by holding back her sister in their first final round meeting at a Grand Slam event in five years.

To be sure, Serena did not get the job done, and she did not compete with the fury and pride we have seen so frequently from her over the years. But make no mistake about it: Venus Williams - unwavering and resilient, purposeful and quietly driven, graceful under pressure --- won this tournament fair and square, and won it well. I will not underestimate her again.

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