Let's pretend youare, say, an insurance salesman. You're damn good at your job, world-classeven. You clock in every day. You miss family functions on account of work. Youtry like hell to improve your performance rating and keep ascending the ladder.But there are these two colleagues--siblings, no less!--blocking your progress.They seem to pop into the office only when the mood strikes. They miss all themeetings and those insufferable "team building" outings because they'reoff acting or designing clothes or doing Lord knows what else. They take lotsof sick leave, too. But when there's money on the table, they're the bestaround. They swoop in, perform with breathtaking skill and close the biggestaccounts. Argh!
So perhaps you cancommiserate with the rank-and-file on the WTA Tour. Most of the women arefull-timers, devoting their lives to tennis. Yet, again and again Serena andVenus Williams emerge, often from far off the radar, to win the biggesttournaments. At January's Australian Open, Serena entered ranked No.¬†81,having played just four events in all of last year, and took the title. Lastweek at waterlogged Wimbledon, it was Venus's turn.
Williams the Elderdescended on London ranked No.¬†31, seeded 23rd only by virtue of herprevious grass-court success. She had played so poorly last month at the FrenchOpen, failing to get past the third round, that her father, Richard, said shemight as well shelve her rackets. Even at Wimbledon she was hardly the pictureof single-minded focus. She read. She played with the Mac program GarageBand.She strolled hand-in-hand with her boyfriend, PGA Tour player Hank Kuehne."I was like, 'Shouldn't you be concentrating more on your matches?' "her mother and coach, Oracene Price, says with a laugh.
No matter. OnSaturday, by the time Venus had pasted her final serve and lasered her lastcrosscourt forehand, capping a stunning display of grass-court tennis, she hadwon her fourth Wimbledon singles trophy. She was the lowest-ranked female everto take the title. She added still another chapter to her family's endlesslyengrossing narrative. And none of it surprised her. "I always believe in mygame," she says. "Losing never really crosses my mind."
Hear that? Plentyis made of Williams's unmistakable physical gifts, and they were on vividdisplay last week. It's not for nothing that Williams has won four of her sixcareer majors on the lawns of the All¬†England Club, a surface that rewardsmovement and power. The best athlete in the history of women's tennis, Williamsscurried from sideline to sideline, not only reaching every ball but alsoblasting it back. Her average serve for the tournament traveled at115¬†mph, a speed that all but seven other female players failed to clockeven once. Williams even won her share of points at the net. But ultimatelythis was more a triumph of will than of ability. For all her other assets,Williams possesses the most precious tennis gift of all: boundlessself-confidence. Like Serena, Venus is, as she puts it, "a big-matchplayer." To her way of thinking, self-belief conquers all, from stale formto nagging injuries.
In her first- andthird-round matches Williams struggled to find the court with her groundstrokes and was a few points from losing to no-names. On the brink ofelimination, however, she summoned her best tennis, simply refusing to miss aball. Then she faced three of the WTA's top six players--Russia's MariaSharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serbia's Ana Ivanovic--and madesteak-and-kidney pie of each of them. Like most courtside observers, Williamssensed fear across the net. "No matter what [I'm] ranked, I think the otherplayers feel at a disadvantage," she says. "They feel like they have toplay their best, and I have to play not my best."
In the finalWilliams held off Marion Bartoli, an endearing, little-known French player whonoted that Pierce Brosnan's courtside presence inspired her seismic semifinalupset of top-seed Justine Henin. Coached by her father, Walter Bartoli, adoctor who quit his practice in a rural town to travel with her, Marion playsquirky tennis predicated on angles rather than on brute force. Williams wasinitially thrown off by Bartoli's unconventional style and two-fisted forehand,but she adjusted, showing a knack for strategy and finesse that she's tooseldom credited with having. "When she plays like this on grass, it's notpossible to beat her," Bartoli said. "She's just too good, youknow?"
Williams'srenaissance helped salvage what was, until late in its second week, a doomedevent. A column in the Guardian went so far as to suggest that this was"the worst [Wimbledon] ever." During the first week of play there werethree attempted car bombings in the U.K., leading to tightened security at theAll¬†England Club and a palpable sense of unease. And then the raincame--so relentless that one half-expected to see animals lined up in twos nearthe Tube station--saturating the courts and constipating the matchschedule.
The tournamentcannot be blamed, of course, for terrorist sleeper cells or for inclementweather. But the organizers did themselves no favors by stubbornly favoringritual over common sense. As a result we saw just how fine a line there isbetween charm and obsolescence. Despite a gloomy second-week forecast, therewere, in keeping with tradition, no matches on the middle Sunday--which,naturally, was a gloriously sunny day. "It's a residential area, and wehave to respect our neighbors' day of rest," said a club spokesman. Thedecision, which disrupted the rhythm of the tournament and deprived the commonfan of a weekend session, became all the more maddening when three days of rainfollowed.
Again owing totradition, the tournament insists on forgoing tiebreakers in the third set ofwomen's matches and the fifth of men's. With clear skies at a premium and theschedule already snarled, one men's doubles match ended with the absurd scoreof 5-7, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 28-26. What's more, many of the scheduling decisionswere illogical. French Open champion Rafael Nadal's contentious third-roundmatch against Sweden's Robin Soderling spanned five days and eight rain delays,the two men marching mindlessly between court and locker room like BuckinghamPalace guards. "They don't think very much about the players here,maybe," groused Nadal.
A beneficiary ofit all was Roger Federer, the one player least in need of good fortune atWimbledon. The four-time defending champion won his third-round match on thefirst Friday of the fortnight. After his next opponent withdrew with a stomachinjury, the Mighty Fed didn't appear back on court for six days. Where's Roger?became a mid-tournament parlor game. "We've been stuck in a locker room,and he's been chilling out, taking the double-decker bus red thing tour,"suggested Andy Roddick, who lost in the quarterfinals to Richard Gasquet.Federer, in fact, spent the rain delays mostly inside his rented home, thoughhe did venture out to get a haircut.
When he reemerged,refreshed and reshorn, his game showed little rust. Someone once wrote that thebest mysteries are those you'd read even if you knew the ending in advance. Soit is with Federer. That he was going to win his fifth consecutive Wimbledon,tying Bjorn Borg's modern record, was considered by many a foregone conclusion.How he did it made for gripping theater.
Against his firstfive opponents--the pre-Rafaelites, as it were--Federer played typicallysumptuous tennis. More than any other surface, grass highlights thecompleteness of his game. On some points he served and volleyed, venturingwhere few dare to tread (the net) and showcasing his deft hands. On otherpoints he stayed back and demonstrated his power from the baseline. Whennecessary he displayed his touch, hitting spin-laden shots that appeareddestined to hit the royal box and, as if suddenly thinking better of it, dippedinto the court.
Before thetournament, one of the few knocks on Federer (as if world domination weresomehow his fault) went something like this: He's not battle-tested; he's neverhad a 15-round knockdown, drag-out title fight that really tested his mettle.No more. In brilliant Sunday sunshine the Federer-Nadal final--the latestinstallment in the best rivalry men's tennis has given us sinceBorg-McEnroe--was less a tennis match than a four-hour passion play.
The playersswapped the first two sets, and Federer won the third in a tiebreaker, servingbrilliantly but barely running down the whipping lefty groundstrokes of Nadal,who abandoned his customary defensive game and went on the attack, painting thecorners and even occasionally charging the net to finish off a point. Nadal wonthe fourth set easily and, with break points in two of Federer's first threeservice games in the fifth, seemed on the verge of taking Federer down on hishome court and seizing primacy in men's tennis. But with Nadal serving at 2-3in the fifth set, Federer, like Williams, showed that he has courage to matchhis physical gifts. Under the most tense circumstances he pulled off threeforehand winners, one more spectacular than the next, to win the game. Inasmuchas a man with 11 major titles can have a career-defining moment, this mighthave been it. A few minutes later he punctuated the match, fittingly enough,with a smash. He fell to his knees in the manner of Borg--who was looking onfrom the royal box--and then embraced Nadal, who ought to take comfort in theknowledge that he will win this event one day. "In a way I was looking fora match like this," Federer said afterward. "Getting to a Grand Slamfinal, playing Nadal, five sets. It was an ultimate test, and it feels great tocome through it."
Federer's winningcan seem so numbingly familiar that it's easy to overlook the magnitude of hisachievement on Sunday. He has now reached the finals of nine straight majorsand won seven of them. Regardless of what happens at the U.S.¬†Open--wherehe is the three-time defending champion--he will have won at least two majorsin each of the past four seasons. Last week no less than Pete Sampras, owner ofa record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, conceded, "I think he will break anytennis record that's out there."
In this, the firstyear of equal prize money at Wimbledon--see, some stodgy traditions can beovercome--Williams and Federer each earned roughly $1.4¬†million for theirtime and effort. Still, they were underpaid. They redeemed the tournament. It'sa recurring theme in tennis: In the end the champions make order out of thechaos.
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One of the few knocks on Federer: He's notBATTLE-TESTED; he's never had a 15-round knockdown, drag-out title fight. Nomore.
Photograph by Bob Martin
Like the athletic Williams, the triumphant Federer showed courage equal to hisamazing talent.
Federer's forehands in the final set against Nadal (opposite left) signaled acareer-defining moment.
SIMON BRUTY (NADAL)
[See caption above.]
BOB MARTIN (WILLIAMS)
REBIRTH OF VENUS Seeded 23rd, Williamssurprised everyone but herself with her triumph over Bartoli (above,right).
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (BARTOLI)
[See caption above.]