Friday, July 01, 2005

Venus and Lindsay Meet in All American Final

When the greatest tennis tournament at the All England Club began, to most observers, Venus Williams wasn't a serious contender to win her fifth grand slam title and first since taking the U.S. Open in 2001. How could she have been when younger sis Serena loomed in the fourth round and French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne was expected to be waiting in the quarterfinals?

But that's why they play the matches. As Venus was taking care of business in her early rounds, suddenly, her bracket opened up. In the very opening round, a weary Henin-Hardenne fell victim to Eleni Daniilidou in three sets. Then with a potential sister showdown within grasp, an injury riddled and weary Serena couldn't get through Jill Craybas, losing in straight sets despite trying her best. But after surviving the first two rounds with come-from-behind three set victories, Serena couldn't pull another magic trick out of her bag. She was done.

Maybe this was a blessing in disguise for Venus. Whenever they have met in slams, it's always been tough to watch and usually hasn't produced the kind of high quality tennis both Williamses are capable of. For Venus, it meant one less distraction on and off the court. A chance to just focus on the task at hand without all the fuss.

A round later, she avenged Serena's loss by whipping Craybas, only dropping two games to advance to her first quarterfinal since the '04 French Open. Finally against a tougher opponent in French runner-up Mary Pierce, Venus found out that she still had what it took to win a major. After bageling Pierce in the first set, things got a little tight in a competitive second set tiebreak. But with tension running high, Venus fought off several set points and ultimately prevailed 12-10 to advance to her first semifinal at a major since falling short in the final to Serena two years ago.

Venus would have the unenviable task of having to dethrone the talented Russian defending champion Maria Sharapova in the semis. Sharapova, just 18 had shown little signs of retreat in attempting to repeat. Just like Venus, she hadn't dropped a set all tournament and remarkably had been broken just once heading into the match. But in an ultracompetitive slugfest, it was Venus who showed better hustle and shotmaking along with a bundle of determination. The first set was intensely played with each player crushing balls from the baseline which produced an exciting brand of tennis that had the crowd captivated. But when Venus blew a set point and dropped her serve to a game Sharapova, it forced a tiebreak. But once there, the more experienced 25-year-old American played a cleaner game taking it 7-2 to capture the momentum. This seemed to take some fight out of her opponent. She broke right away to start the second and never let up. Though Sharapova wouldn't go away, Venus proved to be too much, even breaking the will of the number two ranked player. When it was over after a Sharapova backhand sailed long, Venus had won the second set 6-1 and put her arms up in triumph.

She showed the world that she was back. The victory had to be extra satisfying for Venus, who had never defeated Sharapova in two previous tries. Most including myself felt she would give a great effort but come up short against the defending champ. There would have been no devastation if that's what happened because Venus was an underdog. But on this day, this wasn't your normal 14th seed playing number two. This was a two-time Wimbledon champion and four-time slam winner. The hunger was back.

Today, Venus will meet a familiar foe in number one ranked Lindsay Davenport for the championship. It promises to be intriguing. Both players are in their mid to late 20's. Davenport is 29, four years older than Venus. Imagine that! Two seasoned vets will battle to become the sixth different woman to win the sixth consecutive slam. We're so used to seeing younger champions such as Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne, Kuznetsova and Myskina. Even Serena is still just 23. When two older women battle for all the marbles, it's news.

Both finalists haven't won a slam title in a while. Venus won her last one four years ago at the All England Club when she was a younger 21. For Davenport, the drought has been even longer. She won her third slam at the Australian Open back in '00. Yes. She was 24 then.

Before last year's Wimbledon, Davenport had considered retirement due to inconsistent play and injuries. It appeared that last year would be her last on the WTA Tour. However, an impressive run to the semifinals where she had a great chance to take out Sharapova in straight sets and continued success at the U.S. Open Series (four tournament wins) changed her mind. If not for an injury in last year's semifinal against eventual champ Kuznetsova, she might have won her fourth major. But it wasn't meant to be.

By the end of the year, she was number one and decided she wasn't done. Instead, Davenport seems to have had a renaissance at an older age. In Melbourne this year, she advanced all the way to her first final since being runner-up at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open five years ago. Against Serena Williams, Davenport seemed in control up a set and a break enroute to her second Aussie title. However, Serena battled back and a moody Davenport had little left in the final set.

At Roland Garros, a surface not suited to her firepower groundstrokes, she surprised Kim Clijsters in the fourth round, showing grit in a three-set comeback win. But the next round, she fell in the quarters to Pierce. Still, it was a nice run on the clay which had to give her more confidence heading to the grass courts.

That has been evident so far. After cruising through the first three rounds without a problem, Davenport faced Clijsters again in the round of 16. In a competitive rematch that produced some excellent rallies and winners from both players, Davenport squeezed out a three set victory. After dropping a second set tiebreak to force the final set, Lindsay stepped up her game and didn't fade like she had in Australia. Instead, she hit some remarkable running forehand winners and dictated most of the points. It enabled her to prevail 6-3 and make the quarterfinals. There, she avenged her U.S. Open defeat to Kuznetsova by prevailing in straight sets, 7-6 (1), 6-3.

In the semis, she faced some stiff competition in Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo. A match that took over two hours and two days to complete due to rain produced some excellent tennis from both combatants. So close were the points that the first two sets needed tiebreakers. Mauresmo took the first one 7-5 and seemed in control when Davenport had an awful opening game of the second set to donate a break of serve. However, a persistent Davenport broke back and forced another tiebreak. This time, Lindsay came up with the goods taking it 7-4 to force a final set. When Davenport broke to lead 4-3, all she needed was to hold her serve twice to win. But when rain halted play with her leading 5-3 and Mauresmo up 15-love serving to stay in the match, it meant a difficult task of having to comeback Friday and try to close it out as quickly as possible. Especially with a rested Venus waiting. After Mauresmo won the final three points on her serve to make it 5-4, Davenport cooly got all her four first serves in and won every point to conclude the contest 6-4 and advance to the final.

This will be a championship rematch of five years ago. At that time, Venus won the first of her four slams, defeating a higher ranked Davenport 6-3, 7-6 (3). Now, five years later, once again Davenport is ranked higher and will be the favorite. If Venus is victorious, she will become the lowest seed (14th) to ever claim the Wimbledon crown. Last summer, Sharapova claimed the title as a 13 seed.

Now that both are there, two things are certain. Someone that hasn't lifted a trophy in four-or-more years will win Wimbledon. Both competitors will be American, ensuring tennis fans in The States with an early Fourth of July present.


Let the fireworks begin.

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