Venus back in the game

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun, AT WIMBLEDON

, Last Updated: 11:25 AM ET

LONDON -- For the sixth time this decade, and defying all pre-tournament logic, a woman named Williams will play for the championship of Wimbledon.

Only this time, nobody thought it would be possible.

Nobody saw Venus Williams coming. Not like this. Not this focussed. Not this determined. Not this sensational.

Nobody figured her a contender here except her noisy father, Richard, and really, who takes him seriously?

After years of injury trouble, disinterest, deferring to the success of her younger sister, Serena, and even more disinterest, Williams didn't simply eliminate the defending champion, Maria Sharapova, from the tournament. She absolutely mastered the most popular female athlete on the planet.

"I always felt I could play at this level," said Williams, who was an also-ran in Grand Slam tournaments the past three years. "Everyone has their trials and tribulations ... I just didn't want to lose focus of what I needed to do."

And her focus -- which has been in some doubt in recent years -- rarely waned on centre court against a determined Sharapova. That's what made the 7-6, 6-1 victory in 102 minutes all the more impressive. Sharapova never stopped battling. Down 5-2 in the first set, she took Williams to a tie-breaker. In the past, that might have been enough to distract Williams.

Yesterday, it only seemed to inspire her.

The Williams-Sharapova match was so emotional, so tight and so desperate that it should have been a final here. But in the end, Sharapova just didn't offer enough to compete at the level at which Williams was playing.

Venus was that much stronger, that much faster, that much more powerful, defeating Sharapova and the Wimbledon weather on the very same day.

"I just played against a really good opponent," the ever-graceful Sharapova said. And when told that Venus had received a pre-match e-mail from her sister, offering advice, she scoffed: "I don't think it was anything to do with family. That was Venus. It wasn't Serena."

Translation: It was something that she never had seen before. Something many of us thought they never would see again.

After the win, Venus said she received a post-match congratulatory phone call from her sister, saying: "Can I have your autograph?"

CONDITIONING

Venus e-mailed her back, writing: "I just wanted to be like you."

They are that close and that silly.

The difference between sisters now -- there always seems to be some kind of difference -- is conditioning. Venus looks to be in tip-top shape. Serena looked like she ate her way out of the tournament.

Venus dominated in 2000 and 2001. Serena dominated in 2002 and 2003. The past two years -- until yesterday -- the sisters have deferred to whichever player on whichever surface happened to be among the best.

"The level of tennis (yesterday) was a lot higher from both of us than in last year's final," said Sharapova, referring to her victory over Serena.

OPPONENT

And yes, there still is a final to play, the opponent to be determined this morning. Lindsay Davenport led France's Amelie Mauresmo 6-7, 7-6, 5-3 when pelting rain postponed the remainder of the match until today. Beating Sharapova was important to Williams but beating the rain -- after a four-hour delay to the beginning of their match -- was just as important.

"I was trying not to focus on the weather, just on the tennis," said Williams, who has been known to forget scores midway through her matches.

Yesterday was one score she will remember for some time.


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