DAVENPORT HITS THE PAIN BARRIER

3 July 2005

It was when we saw the tattoo above Lindsay Davenport’s bottom that we knew that this was to be a final like no other. Lindsay is far too good a citizen to give public showings of such private things but at 4-3 in the final set and something is wrong with your back, modesty is not an option. Lindsay needed the trainer to tweak it or Venus could yet overcome.

It had taken us a while to get to this drama. Many plays don’t sustain a second act; this one had problems surviving the first. For too long it seemed to be a story of two tall ladies and a missing princess. Only a great match was going to prevent a hankering for the Sharapova that was not there. After 20 minutes with an out-of-touch Venus trailing 2-5 the “Bring Back Maria” banners could only have been minutes away.

The idea of the match finally lasting 2¾ hours and having both a script and a style all its own was much more than a quietened crowd could ever have hoped for. Fallibility was what made this special. Fallibility in Venus’s head and Lindsay’s body. After the return to her glory days in the semi-final against Sharapova, Venus Williams seemed for far too long to be a genie in search of her lamp. The yelps seemed as much in self-pity as in determination. We all knew there was a great player in there but somehow she couldn’t get out.

But there is nothing like a bit of humiliation to stoke up an underachieving star. When she was broken at five-all in the second set and Davenport went to serve for the match, there was an extra snap to those long camera-tripod legs, a new belief in the angles as she ran Davenport round the court. The crowd, who had at times been tense as much with embarrassment with excitement, was fully involved at last. When Venus got into the tie-break and out of it, we knew we had a proper match on our hands. But it was only when we got to tattoo time that we realised this was one for the record books.

For all her cool and commanding presence around the court, Davenport’s 6ft 2in is not the sort of frame to have a bad back in the third set. She was already wearing a supportive plaster on her right upper thigh. She took her five-minute time-out for treatment and some sympathetic applause on her return. But when she got only one point against the Williams service, it looked as if there was a lot to be sympathetic about.

If Venus put the ball wide to the Davenport forehand, she seemed not to be able to run for it at all. If Venus just gave her the run-around, the title was hers. Easy to say from the press seats. Not so easy down on the Wimbledon turf with such a solid warrior as Davenport against you.

Somehow she won her service to lead 5-4 and suddenly Venus was finding holding her service a major difficulty. She double-faulted to give Davenport a match point and gave an anguished look to her parents in the players’ box. Lindsay was playing heroically but, just in time Venus remembered that she was a hero too.

Which is what gave the five remaining games their epic quality. Davenport was a wounded animal, but somehow she traded Williams shot for shot. What had been something of an apology of a final became a mesmerising contest with pounded double-fisted backhands lasering to the very edge of the base lines.

You could sense the force of will in Davenport. It was way back in 1993 when she beat Gabriela Sabatini in her first week as a professional. It was Martina Hingis she beat to win the US Open in 1998, Graf here at Wimbledon in ’99. Her career has spanned the eras but this, at 29, could be the crowning of the Indian summer that has brought her to world No 1.

But Venus has not yet forgotten all the brilliance that made her seemingly unbeatable and which triumphed over Lindsay at Wimbledon in 2000. She may have a glitterati giddiness about her nowadays but her much expressed interest in design and other things was now submerged beneath the original force that had defined her being. Venus Williams is a great and elegant tennis player. She had a great opponent but a second Wimbledon crown was surely within her compass.

At 40-love and three match points, she managed to double-fault but fallibility was then banished and the glory days returned. Davenport dumped down in her chair heavy with disappointment and began to re-tie her shoelaces.

Venus went knee-jumping haywire with glee. She had not just won a match, she had re-taken an identity most people thought she had lost forever. Winners and losers, triumph and disaster; there is no tattoo that could do justice to that.

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