Before there was ever Serena Williams, there was Venus. These days it can be easy to forget that, removed as we are 12 years from Venus’s seventh and last slam triumph, at Wimbledon in 2008. As Serena has risen from star to cultural icon, Venus continues to compete but she is nearly 40 now. She is nearly at her end.
Fifteen years ago, many concluded she was already there. Venus arrived at Wimbledon in 2005 having suffered the embarrassment of being outplayed at Roland Garros by a 15-year-old from Bulgaria named Sesil Karatantcheva. The American had tumbled from the top 10. She was struggling. People argued that her outside interests were eating her game from within, pointing out that she had reached her first slam final aged just 17. Perhaps it made sense that she was done at 25.
After starting timidly at Wimbledon, Williams’s level hit the stratosphere. She marched to the final by sidestepping the No 2, Maria Sharapova, in a loud, combative, unforgettable classic. At the final hurdle stood the No 1, Lindsay Davenport, perhaps the cleanest ball-striker the sport has ever seen. As the contest unfolded, Davenport took control, easily matching her opponent’s power and with added, vicious precision. The 29-year-old served for the title at 6-4, 6-5.
Of all the predictions that Richard Williams made about his daughters, his most perceptive one came before Serena’s arrival, as Venus broke into her stride as a precocious teenager. As the tennis world was floored by the years of insufferable hype actually coming true, he calmly pointed out that Venus’s younger sister, Serena, was “meaner” and so she would be greater.
Venus’s killer instinct was frequently lacking, but something different stirred in her that day. A game from defeat, she responded with three winners in a row before breaking to love, then stealing the set with a resolute 7-4 tiebreak.
When Davenport broke in the third set, Williams broke back. But the writing finally seemed to be on the wall as Williams double-faulted at 5-4, 30-30 to stand a point from defeat. Instead, she stepped up to the baseline and crunched a full-blooded backhand down-the-line winner, baring her teeth as she scuppered the championship point before marching back into the match and surviving after 2 hours 46 minutes to win 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7.
When I think of this match, I think of the breathless quality and tension between two giants of the game and the continued hallucinatory sight of a black woman from Compton stepping on to the lawns of the most exclusive club in the sport and making it her own. But most of all, I think of Williams’s reaction: the way the camera slowly zoomed in on her disbelieving face, then her jumping into the air tens of times, falling to her knees and screaming to the skies. The way she just could not believe that she was back and she had won again.
Venus was the first, the barrier-breaker, and so she could never show too much of her emotions. She always had to be stoic and she used her swagger to shield herself from vulnerability. After falling from the top of the game and the world counting her out, this was the moment she finally showed how she really felt.
Hindsight has shone an even greater light on this contest. Most players spend the day before a slam final embedded in the routines that drove them to that position. Williams spent her Friday afternoon meeting with the suits of Wimbledon behind closed doors and pushing them to finally adopt equal prize money.
Like Billie Jean King before her, she recognised that she could use her stature to push hard for change. A year later, she penned an article for the Times entitled “Wimbledon has sent me a message: I’m only a second class champion”. Wimbledon finally announced equal prize money in 2007; Williams returned that year and won it all again.