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As challenger, Venus gets shot


WIMBLEDON, England - Venus Williams proved she can beat her little sister Serena.

But can she beat a champ?

That's the main question heading into today's Wimbledon women's final as Williams takes on defending champion Lindsay Davenport in an all-American Centre Court classic.

It's an occasion filled with great expectations and crammed with potential drama and history.

There's Davenport, a tall player with a big game seeking to reassert her dominance in women's tennis while trying to retain a title that has filled her with wonder and confidence.

And there's Williams, a champion in waiting ever since she was a gangly teen, still bidding to gain a first Grand Slam title that could mark the start of a new era. She took a giant step toward conquering Wimbledon when she conquered her sister in a two-set semifinal.

Mixed in with the personal battle on the court is a footnote for the tennis and social historians. If Williams wins, she'll become the first African-American woman to claim a Wimbledon singles title since Althea Gibson scored back-to-back victories in championship finals in 1957 and 1958.

"We're here to make it happen," said Richard Williams, father of the two tennis prodigies. "I understand Althea Gibson won this over here. We're here to follow those footsteps."

Serena Williams has already blazed a Grand Slam trail, winning the 1999 U.S. Open title. Now, it may be Venus Williams' turn.

"The history Venus and Serena will set here and everywhere else will be phenomenal," Richard Williams said.

When a reporter mentioned that Serena has won Grand Slam title, Richard Williams interrupted and said, "and Venus will be getting hers [today]. When Venus learns how easy it is to win, she'll start walking through."

Venus Williams acknowledged that she and her sister could play roles in sporting history, competing both against and with one another. They blasted their way into the doubles final yesterday with a convincing two-set win over Anna Kournikova and Natalia Zvereva.

"There have been so few black people to win Wimbledon or even just to play outstanding tennis," Venus Williams said. "So hopefully there will be more. Naturally we're going to do our best to change that. We already have."

The Williams sisters have already had an extraordinary time at Wimbledon's Millennium Championships. Their all-sister semifinal produced predictably mediocre play but fascinating theater. Yet it was merely a stepping stone to a title.

In her only previous Grand Slam final, the 1997 U.S. Open, Venus Williams lost to Martina Hingis in two sets.

Back then, she was an unpolished tour part-timer. Now, she's more experienced, more powerful, and returning from a six-month layoff after suffering tendinitis in both wrists.

"I didn't understand any strategy as far as let's say you're down break point, maybe you should get your first serve in," Venus Williams said. "Things like that never came to my mind. It was totally different circumstances. It's extremely different now."

Serena Williams advises her sister "not to get too much caught up in the moment of 'I'm in the final of Wimbledon.'"

"Just relax, go out there and perform," Serena Williams said.

Against Davenport, Venus Williams will face an experienced player who can overpower any opponent from the baseline. In their 12 previous meetings, Davenport has won nine, including the 1999 Australian Open quarterfinal.

"I've played her a lot of times in the past," Davenport said. "A lot of times, I found the key was to find a way to get her serve back, get them back deep so she obviously doesn't have put-away shots. On grass, that's going to be a little more difficult than on other surfaces. I'll have to concentrate on that."

This time, Venus Williams said, things could be different. Her serve is better, and the grass surface is faster.

"I think a lot of factors in the past are really going to be obsolete because the circumstances are so, so different," she said. "Any advantage that I might have had or she might have had is not really going to be a factor because we're both going to really want it."

The Boston Globe contributed to this article.

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