Light is bright on Venus' star


WIMBLEDON, England - Now she was reaching for her sister and watching her father dance on the roof of a broadcast booth, and no one really knew what to make of this scene of family joy and tennis history blasting through Centre Court.

Later, she would grab hold of a silver winner's plate from a duchess and pirouette across the scarred grass, climaxing an audacious American tennis odyssey.

When Venus Williams beat Lindsay Davenport yesterday, she took the Wimbledon women's singles tennis title and grabbed hold of a sport with her power, poise and perseverance. Surviving jitters and wobbly serves, Williams fulfilled a decade's worth of great expectations and won a flat final with a few decisive shots, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3).

"This was meant to be," she said during a tearful news conference.

Long after the final score and uncertain tennis are forgotten, they'll remember that celebration, Venus and Serena, sisters and tennis-playing champs embracing, while their father and coach, Richard, was up on the roof, and the crowd was roaring.

And as long as the ivy grows on the outside walls of Centre Court, they'll have to retell the American tale. Her grandmother was a Louisiana sharecropper. Her father worked in a car wash, for a time, and harbored a dream of raising champions, nurturing the tennis talents of Venus and Serena on hard courts in Compton, Calif., before moving to Florida.

Before they ever played a pro match, Richard Williams told anyone who would listen that his daughters would win championships and change the course of the women's game. He used his own coaching philosophy and notion of what was best in a hard-bitten tennis world, ruffling feathers and emboldening the skeptics.

He even brought his unique style to the most hallowed stadium in the game, holding up hand-printed signs on a board throughout the final match, punctuated by a slogan: "It's Venus' Party and no one was invited."

Later, he walked through the crowd and told reporters, "You've got to talk to Venus. It's her day."

But it also belonged to history.

Forty-two years after Althea Gibson won the second of her two Wimbledon singles titles and 25 years after Arthur Ashe conquered Jimmy Connors, a 20-year-old African-American woman claimed one of Wimbledon's top prizes.

From mid-century to a new millennium, America and a tennis-playing world have come a long way.

Even in victory, Venus Williams tried to sum up the long, lonely road that surely confronted Gibson, a racket-wielding pioneer who lives in East Orange, N.J. They've never met, although they have spoken once on the telephone.

"It had to be hard because people were unable to see past color," Williams said. "Still, these days, it's hardly any different because you have to realize it's only been 40 years. How can you change years and centuries of being biased in 40 years? So realistically, not too much has changed. But I really appreciate how hard it was. You realize not everyone wants you to win, not everyone's going to support you - and that's OK."

She also spoke the unspoken about race, tennis and television.

"People are turning their TV, and suddenly they see this black girl playing tennis. 'What's this?' We're out there grunting and speeding," she said.

And winning.

No one is quite sure the impact the Williams sisters will have on tennis. Zina Garrison, the last African-American woman to reach a Wimbledon final in 1990, witnessed yesterday's historic match, and said Serena told her "not to cry."

"I'm thinking, this is unbelievable," Garrison said. "Both of the girls winning, Venus here, Serena at the U.S. Open; Richard telling everyone it would happen."

More than anything, she said, the triumph would "raise awareness" about tennis throughout America.

In September, it was Serena Williams who broke through in a Grand Slam and won the U.S. Open. And now it's July, and it was Venus Williams who won a first Grand Slam.

"I feel really calm," Venus Williams said. "I love winning Wimbledon. I love playing tennis. I love winning titles."

She also said she realized "I wouldn't be any happier in my life in general if I won or lost. Sure, in tennis, the tennis part of my life, I'd be much happier. But winning, losing, money, riches or fame doesn't make you happy."

The match against Davenport, the reigning champion, was an error-filled exhibition. After nearly two weeks of relentless pressure and rugged play, the two baseliners appeared a bit worn out. Venus Williams, who missed six months with tendinitis in both wrists, had to beat her sister Serena and No. 1-rated Martina Hingis to get to this final. Davenport had to play herself back into form after back and leg injuries, and a nagging cold.

Williams took the first set when Davenport punched a forehand long. She had a chance to serve out the match at 5-4 in the second set, but slammed two double faults and two unforced errors to give Davenport a second chance.

And give Davenport credit. Clearly having an off-day, troubled by a flighty serve, she fought back to send the second set into a tiebreaker before giving way when a last forehand volley fell out, igniting cheers and a celebration.

"I thought something crazy might happen," Davenport said. "I saw what she did when she beat Martina [Hingis]. I thought, 'Oh, God, it's got to get way worse today. ' "

She added, "Maybe one day I'll watch the highlights of it."

Davenport didn't relish losing, but she understood that she played in a match that elevated tennis beyond sport.

She said the Williams sisters "are going to win many more titles. They've been great influences in the game. To see everything that they've gone through and their athleticism, they're showing that tennis players can be very athletic. I mean, they've done great things for the sport."

Later, Venus Williams was asked what word summed up her fortnight at Wimbledon. Without missing a beat, she said, "proud."

"Because I got the job done," she added. "I didn't let anything hold me back - not No. 1 [Hingis], not No. 2 [Davenport], not No. 8 [Serena Williams]."

Venus Williams, who will aim for a Wimbledon double when she plays with her sister in today's doubles final, also let everyone in on a secret. She said she knew she would win Wimbledon a few weeks ago when she bought a dress for the champions' ball.

"I had one dress I could wear, but it was last year's, it wasn't the right color," she said. "Colors have changed since then. So I had to go find a dress. I was scrambling around the mall finding a dress. It was an extra incentive because if I didn't win, I wouldn't get to wear this wonderful dress."

She got the dress and the title. And for one day, she brought joy and wonder to Wimbledon.

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