Thursday, June 30, 2005
Updated: July 1, 9:44 AM ET
Williams to play in Wimbledon women's final
By Wayne Drehs
WIMBLEDON, England When the match was finally over, when Venus Williams had finished reasserting herself as a force in women's tennis, the 25-year-old's cell phone rang.
On the other end was Serena, at home in the United States.
"Venus?" her younger sister asked. "Can I have your autograph?"
It was obviously a joke, just the latest banter between America's most famous tennis sisters. But it didn't need to be. For Venus was just that dominating Thursday against defending Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, becoming the lowest seed to reach a Wimbledon final by beating the Russian teen 7-6 (2), 6-1.
What was once a nice midweek story Venus Williams avenging her sister's third-round loss, discovering a fraction of her form and making a little noise in her favorite Grand Slam has become the ultimate head-scratcher of the entire tournament.
How has Williams, who hadn't reached a Grand Slam final since winning here in 2002, who hadn't beaten anyone in the top five in two years and whose ranking had slipped to 16th, turned her fortunes around so quickly?
The answer? She's found the zone.
"In the end, it doesn't matter who's across the net. It doesn't matter what they hit," Williams said. "It's all about you. It's about what you're going to do. It's about focusing on what your plan is and doing the right thing."
Thursday, Williams seemingly couldn't do anything wrong. Boosted by encouragement and tactical advice from Serena, who lost to Sharapova in last year's final and e-mailed Venus before the match, Williams was in control throughout.
Her serves were fast and accurate. Her forehand was strong. Her backhand was daring. She had Sharapova, the 18-year-old diva with gold in her shoes, running all over the court wondering where this was coming from.
Every return was hard. Every return was deep. Every chance she got, she applied pressure to the defending champion and in the end, left Sharapova, who hadn't lost a set the entire tournament, looking like, well, a kid.
"Venus today was hitting big shots, big on the offensive," said Sharapova, whose 22-match winning streak was snapped. "Sometimes you feel like you can make every shot from any part of the court and sometimes you can make errors."
Williams was stuck in the former. She has yet to lose a Wimbledon semifinal and has yet to drop a set in the tournament. Now comes the ultimate challenge, defeating either Lindsay Davenport or Amelie Mauresmo, whose match was suspended by rain, in the final Saturday.
If Williams can continue her elevated level of play, some might now consider her the favorite. In the 19 years of the Open Era in which the defending champion has been beaten, her conqueror has claimed the title 12 times, including each of the last five.
Williams could do no wrong Thursday. And the Wimbledon fans were awarded for their patience. After a 4½-hour rain delay that forced organizers to move the Davenport-Mauresmo match to Court 1 so Williams and Sharapova could play at the same time, an 11-stroke relay foreshadowed the intensity of the remainder of the match.
In the sixth game of the first set, Williams struck the first blow, breaking Sharapova's serve and jumping to a 4-2 lead. It was just the second time Sharapova had been broken in 87 games during this tournament.
Leading 5-3, Williams blew a pair of potential set points, opening the door to a tiebreaker. But she took control, using her 117 mph serve and ferocious return game to keep the teenager off balance and jump to a 6-2 tiebreaker lead. Given four set points to put Sharapova away, she capitalized. And after 62 grueling minutes, Williams had a 1-0 lead.
"I made two errors that were about an inch wide," Sharapova said. "That's the way it goes in tennis. If I would have made them, who knows what would have happened?"
To start the second set, Williams again broke Sharapova's serve. Facing a break point of her own, Williams climbed out of that to steal the second game and take a 2-0 lead.
Venus had a set and a break lead over Sharapova, just like Davenport did in last year's semifinal, when a rain delay turned Sharapova's fortunes around. And wouldn't you know, right about that time, drizzle started to fall.
"I knew with the weather I didn't have a lot of time," Williams said. "But I needed to concentrate on hitting my shots."
Sharapova then dropped two more games and before she knew it, trailed 4-1. At one point, she fired a rocket serve right at Williams, only to have the two-time Wimbledon champ almost instantly jump back, fight it off with her backhand and drop the return just before the sideline.
From there, the outcome was all but decided. It wasn't Sharapova feeling the pressure of defending her crown or being bugged by the switch to Centre Court, or the rain delay or the photographers or anything else. It was simply Venus Williams' domination. Like she had jumped into a time machine, punched in the right buttons and found her championship form of three years earlier.
"Everyone has their moment in the sun," Williams said. "That's what my mom always says, everyone has their chance. Obviously, each tournament I feel like it should be my chance. But everyone gets a chance. Everyone gets to play well."
And Williams' chance is unquestionably now. After the match, facing the prospect of joining rare company as a three-time Wimbledon champion, Williams was asked if the grounds at SW19 feel like they belong to her.
"I think many people have this place," she said. "Navratilova, Graf, Billie Jean King, all those people. It's just something that's rented that's for sure."
And with a victory Saturday, Williams' rent might no longer be due.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.