WIMBLEDON, England -- Two days before the start of Wimbledon, on their favorite practice court at the back of the All England Club, tournament favorite Serena Williams and big sister Venus were laboring through a one-hour hitting session and, despite what the oddsmakers had portended for the coming fortnight, there was no question who was striking the ball better.
With titles at the Australian Open and Key Biscayne, Serena was once again the queen of the fast surfaces. But both sisters knew at the onset of this Wimbledon it was Venus who was playing better ball.
Fourteen days later, on a bright, warm day that made just about everyone forget about the incessant rain that had nearly destroyed this tournament, Venus Williams, seeded 23rd, claimed her fourth Wimbledon title, sixth Grand Slam championship overall, and re-established herself, at least until the next injury hits, as a force in women's tennis.
"This win, it's so much different from the others because the other ones I felt like I was playing in championship form from minute one," she said after puncturing the title dreams of No. 18 Marion Bartoli with an emphatic 6-4, 6-1 victory yesterday that required just 90 minutes.
"Here, I really had to focus on my game and overcome a lot of challenges, including, obviously, being seeded low.
"The last time I won here , it was really an outrageous way to win. I keep that trophy by my bed. That's the only one I keep close to me. I don't know if this can replace that trophy, but it's so wonderful."
Two years ago, like this year, she was on no one's top-five favorites list. But she swept through the draw, defeating Mary Pierce in the quarters, then No. 2 Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and No. 1 Lindsay Davenport in the final.
This year, she came to Wimbledon having played only 27 matches as she carefully measured a comeback from a severe injury to her left wrist.
"I started preparing slowly but surely in January, getting back on court and hitting balls. Finally got to play in February. It's just been a process, step by step, getting healthier and stronger, just being able to get physically back to where I was," she said.
"Even my movement, the way I move. In the beginning of the year, I wasn't strong enough to do that. I had to build my strength. It was a lot of hard work."
She looked great in practice sessions on the Wimbledon lawns. But it took three matches and a couple of three-set squeakers against No. 59 Alla Kudryavtseva and No. 71 Akiko Morigami before everything locked together.
Once past Morigami, she struck down No. 2 Sharapova, No. 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 6 Ana Ivanovic with a devastating display of serving to reach the final against the extremely unorthodox Bartoli, who hung with Venus for eight games until Williams found the formula for dealing with the pugnacious Frenchwoman.
Taking the balls at 4-4, Williams served a love game, and, on her second set point at 5-4, came in behind an aggressive forehand to the corner and easily tapped a backhand volley away to finally put the match under control.
Say this for Bartoli, who had come out of obscurity to upset No. 1 Justine Henin in the semis: She's nerveless. She may have been out-hit by Williams, but she never flinched and she seemed crestfallen at the loss.
"I want this title so bad. I want it so much," she said. "For me, to win this trophy and hold it in your hands, this is the greatest reward you can ever imagine in tennis.
"And to be able to go to the ball and wear the dress and be with the men champions. ... I want it so bad, and I lost. Of course, tomorrow I won't be that disappointed because I will realize what I achieve, which is already awesome. But right now, of course I'm disappointed."
Her two-handed forehands and backhands, hit with astonishing accuracy, had Williams bewildered for most of the first eight games. But there is a way of dealing with Bartoli, and Williams unraveled the answer.
She's going to move you, but she doesn't strike the ball hard enough to hit you off the court. You have to stay in the point and resist the temptation to fire something crazy back at her. Eventually, she would give Williams a neutral or short ball and that's when Williams struck.
Henin had 27 unforced errors in the two sets she lost to Bartoli. Williams had 12 unforced errors in the two sets she won.
After a shutout year in 2006, the Williams sisters are back, each with a major in 2007. "I think as long as we're fit, we just have so much to give on the court," said Venus as she completed her final news conference.
"My sixth Slam," she said, smiling. "I want some more."
Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Williams Bartoli 1st-serve percentage 70 63 Aces 1 0 Double faults 0 0 Unforced errors 12 9 1st-serve winning pct. 77 60 2nd-serve winning pct. 47 39 Winners (including service) 29 7 Break points 4-10 1-2 Net points 12-17 3-6 Total points won 64 49 Time of match 1:30