Suddenly, she looked so young. All the cool was gone: Her opponent, once a bitter rival, started to extend a hand, but Venus Williams opened her arms for a hug. All the hauteur had melted away: Venus leaped from the grass, skinny legs flying up, treating Wimbledon's august Centre Court like some backyard trampoline. Her father, Richard, stared down from the stands, his mind flashing back to a three-year-old girl bouncing on the bed as he yelled, Get your legs strong! "I loved doing that when I was little," Venus says, but now she was 25 and big and doing it again, jumping and giggling while her dad fought back tears. Who could blame them? Venus had just done what few expected her ever to do again. Flashbulbs popped. She fell to her knees. Men shouted, "Well done, Venus!" and 13,802 people wouldn't or couldn't stop clapping, filling the Saturday twilight with this rolling roar of amazement. Already broadcasters and tennis officials were scrambling to find the one fact grand enough to sum up what they'd seen. Was it that Williams had risen from near oblivion to become the lowest-seeded player (14th) in the Open era to win Wimbledon? Or that she'd become the first woman since 1935 to save championship point and win? Maybe it was that she'd flirted so shamelessly with disaster: Eight times in the two-hour, 45-minute match, the longest women's final in Wimbledon history, Williams was two points from defeat; eight times she outhustled and outplayed world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport before finally seizing her third Wimbledon title, 4--6, 7--6, 9--7. Take your pick. By the time one of the grittiest performances in Grand Slam history ended, the drama had grown so thick, the quality of tennis so high, that even the loser called the experience "exhilarating."
"She just took it away from me," said the 29-year-old Davenport after cracking in a way that would leave most players shattered. "She just was ... incredible."
But maybe it wasn't the tennis that told the tale. Maybe it was what happened once the match ended. For if Saturday's final provided a microcosm of Williams's two-year struggle and two-week resurgence, its aftermath pushed the clock back even further. Venus screamed as the applause went on, like a kid howling at a passing locomotive, like the exuberant teenager--Venus Unbound--who stormed the sport in 1997. Watching her try to sit still, then stand up, then sit back down during the trophy presentation, you half expected one of her old hair beads to skitter across the court. "It's been a long time," said her mother, Oracene Price, "since I've seen her that happy."
The CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, Larry Scott, made sure to find Richard Williams to say how much Venus's return will help the sport. But if the last decade has taught us anything about the Williams family, it's to presume nothing about the long term. Better, for the women's game, to simply revel in the fact that Venus's stunning victories over defending champion Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and Davenport in the final overshadowed anything tossed up by the men. Roger Federer may have won his 21st straight final and his third straight Wimbledon on Sunday with a breezy 6--2, 7--6, 6--4 dismissal of Andy Roddick, but mere genius can't compete with the buzz of Venus on a roll--or the revelation that as much as the game needs her, the feeling is mutual.
"I put tennis first in my life," Williams said after trouncing Sharapova, but it took that straight-sets victory for the world to start believing her. Ever since Williams tore an abdominal muscle during a semifinal win at the 2003 Wimbledon, her interest in tennis has constantly been called into question. She missed the rest of the '03 season trying to recover, and that fall her sister Yetunde Price was murdered. Venus suffered through wrist and ankle injuries in 2004 and lost count of the score during her second-round loss at Wimbledon. At this year's French Open she lost early to a 15-year-old, and her ranking dropped to No. 16. Talk of her interior-design business and an upcoming reality show with sister Serena--not to mention the fact that Venus hadn't won a Grand Slam title since the 2001 U.S. Open--made it easy to imagine her drifting away from the game.
Not anymore. Williams came into this year's Wimbledon transformed, a new-old version of the woman who once disposed of opponents with regal disdain. She had always expressed a near-delusional belief in herself, but this fortnight she delivered it with a tweak: "Faith without work," she admitted early on, "is dead." Healthy again, but having played a reduced schedule because of continuing abdominal tenderness, she avenged Serena's third-round loss to Jill Craybas with a 6--0, 6--2 fourth-round thrashing, then rolled past Mary Pierce in straight sets in the quarterfinals. The shaky forehand and fraying serve, longtime signs of Venus's spotty practice habits, had disappeared, replaced by vicious strokes that stood up under pressure. As the final weekend loomed, Williams turned down chances to see a hot play in London's West End and to have dinner out with her family; she didn't want to lose focus. Capable at times of wearing half a jewelry box on court, she went into the final without earrings, her head and body free of all distractions.
Not that Williams was the only player seeking a psychic boost from the sport's greatest event. This year's Wimbledon was a lollapalooza of need. Sharapova needed to win to justify her presence on seemingly every bus stop and billboard in London. Am�lie Mauresmo needed to win to shed her reputation as the game's biggest choker. Davenport needed to win to justify a top ranking unbolstered by a Grand Slam title since 2000. For the first time in two years the Williams sisters, Davenport, Sharapova and Belgian stars Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters all converged on a major tournament--not that the results provided much clarity. Just as Venus regained her focus, Serena went all fuzzy: After missing last month's French Open with a stress fracture in her left ankle, the 2005 Australian Open champion lasted only three rounds at Wimbledon. Henin-Hardenne, meanwhile, followed a revitalizing title run in Paris by re-straining a hamstring and losing early. Who knows who will show up for the hard-court season?
The men's tour is not nearly as unsettled, but you could feel the need all the same. Once ranked No. 1, former Wimbledon champ Lleyton Hewitt came to England ranked second but with seven straight losses to Federer; only a win would restore his previously unshakable self-confidence. Once ranked No. 1, Roddick retooled last winter in an attempt to gain on Federer, replacing coach Brad Gilbert with Dean Goldfine and amping up his conditioning program; a loss in the Australian Open semis and an early exit in Paris made a reset at Wimbledon imperative. "I'm hungry," Roddick said after his quarterfinal win over S�bastien Grosjean. "If anything this year, I've wanted it too much."
But Federer's want, if not as desperate, was just as strong. He won three Grand Slam titles last year without a coach, and it's a sign of his ambition that he then hired Tony Roche, former mentor of Ivan Lendl and Patrick Rafter, to help him make a run at all four. But then Federer squandered a match point and lost to Marat Safin in Melbourne and buckled mentally against Rafael Nadal in Paris. "Only the win [at Wimbledon] would be satisfying," Federer admitted after eliminating Nicolas Kiefer in the third round. He went on to beat baseliners Juan Carlos Ferrero and Fernando Gonz�lez at their own game and to bat around an oddly subdued Hewitt in Friday's semifinal, 6--3, 6--4, 7--6. For a measure of Wimbledon's increasingly slow playing surface and Federer's dominance during the last two weeks, chew on this: The game's premier grass-courter used serve-and-volley as Plan B for seven matches, resorting to it only to keep things interesting.
In the final Roddick showed off the fruit of his work over the last 12 months: improved volley, shored-up backhand, confidence coming to net. None of it helped. Federer, the man many feel could be the greatest player ever, produced "the best match I ever played," he said. It was so easy that while serving at 4--3 in the third set, Federer almost started crying for joy.