2017-07-13 22:06:02
On Tennis: Venus Williams, Defying Age and Skeptics, Reaches Wimbledon Final

22:06, July 13 31 0

WIMBLEDON, England — In her 20th Wimbledon, Venus Williams is on the verge of what could be her most meaningful victory.

That is quite a statement about a player who has won seven major singles titles and four Olympic gold medals, and who played a critical role in securing equal prize money for women at Wimbledon in 2007.

She is 37 now, an age at which so many of her tennis peers — not including the soon-to-be-36-year-old Roger Federer — have long since moved on to coaching, commentary or life far removed from the constraints of the circuit.

But the weight of the years hardly seems to be much of a burden on Williams’s tennis, and after her latest bravura performance — a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Johanna Konta on Thursday full of clutch serves and cocksure ground strokes — she is back in her first Wimbledon singles final since 2009.

“If Venus wins it, I think this one might mean more to her than any other one just because of everybody writing her off, no one thinking she could ever continue to play the level that she wanted to play,” her coach, David Witt, said.

There were strong grounds for skepticism. Left reeling after a diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder, Sjogren’s Syndrome, Williams did not make it past the fourth round in singles at a Grand Slam tournament in 2011, 2012, 2013 or 2014. There were many occasions when she awoke eager to face the day’s opponent only to discover that she lacked the energy to play the match on her terms.

But she has no shortage of vim and vigor now. She has gathered momentum at Wimbledon after a shaky start and has rumbled past four dangerous and much younger opponents in straight sets.

“There’s definitely a lot of ups and downs,” Williams said, referring to her health issues. “I just try to hold my head up high, no matter what is happening in life.”

After going nearly eight years without reaching a major singles final, she has now reached two in six months.

She lost the Australian Open final in January to her younger sister, Serena Williams. This time, with Serena at home in Florida expecting her first child, Venus will face Garbiñe Muguruza, a 2015 Wimbledon finalist who is seeded just 14th here. But Muguruza has punched high above her seeding, displaying the level of intensity and consistency that once earned her the hashtag #muguruthless — though it has been missing of late.

“Muguruza is playing very well,” Witt said. “But Venus is feeling pretty confident coming out of this match with Konta, and I really think if she plays the way she’s been playing, I don’t see Muguruza beating her.”

Konta, the No. 6 seed from Britain, had defeated Williams in three of their last four matches, but Thursday’s meeting was their first on grass. It was a huge-hitting, high-quality and dead-even encounter until 4-4 in the opening set, when Williams faced the first two break points of the match at 15-40.

She saved the first with a backhand winner and then, after missing her first serve on the next, decided to take a big risk: ripping a huge second serve at 106 miles per hour at Konta’s body that caught Konta by surprise, causing her to miss the return.

The bold serve did not only startle Konta.

“I was like, ‘Man! Who does that?’” said Williams’s sister Isha Price, who was watching from the players box.

Witt added: “That second serve was ridiculous. Ridiculous in a good way.”

It also proved pivotal, as Williams held her serve and then broke Konta in the next game to secure the first set — and the momentum for good.

“I don’t necessarily think it was the be-all-end-all, but it definitely took my break point away,” said Konta, 26. “Her being able to do that is why she is a five-time champion here.”

Williams is a champion who continues to do things her way. As usual, she did not play a warm-up tournament on grass before Wimbledon (Konta played in three), and less than two weeks before the tournament, Williams made a round trip from Florida to Sydney, Australia, to attend a business conference.

“Recharging your batteries by flying around the world is not something I would recommend,” said Martina Navratilova, the nine-time Wimbledon singles champion, before the tournament. “But clearly she thought she was O.K. Maybe it was a nice kind of mental break from other things.”

Williams clearly has had pressing concerns on her mind, above all a fatal traffic collision in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on June 9 that led to the death of 78-year-old Jerome Barson, a passenger in a vehicle that hit Williams’s car. Williams has not been charged in the episode, but Barson’s daughter has filed a wrongful-death suit against Williams.

Williams was initially declared at fault in the crash, but the Palm Beach Gardens police later said she had in fact legally entered the intersection where the collision occurred. The investigation is continuing, and Williams has not addressed the episode since she cried while discussing it in a news conference after her first-round match. But Price said the latest police statement had been reassuring to Venus and the Williams family.

“It’s still unfortunate and tragic; the gentleman did lose his life,” Price said. “But you never want something like that to be your fault. An accident is just that: an accident. You don’t want that to be on your chest at all because it’s so heavy regardless, so, yeah, I think the mood around the camp has lifted.”

Williams, terse and subdued early in the tournament, has become more expressive, and the smile that appeared after she finished off Konta did not disappear until she had walked off court.

Williams’s mother, Oracene Price, witness to so many highs and lows on and off the court, was one of those watching from the players’ box.

“After all these years, they all run together,” her mother said of Venus’s and Serena’s Grand Slam successes. “But we’ll see. I may remember this one. I’ve been waiting on it because Venus has been working on it so hard. She was so disappointed with her illness and everything and worked hard to get herself better and all the emotional stuff, she’s had to try to put that in the back of her head.”

Venus Williams was far from exuberant in her latest sotto voce news conference. “Knocking on the door for a title, this is where I want to be, so I’m definitely excited,” she said. “But it’s like, you know, there’s still more to happen. I’m still very focused.”

She is already the oldest Wimbledon women’s singles finalist since Navratilova (also 37) in 1994, and if she happens to win, she will become the oldest women’s singles champion in history in a place with a whole lot of history.

But watching Williams thwart the powerful, confident Konta without losing serve in a stadium full of enthusiastic British fans on Thursday, one soon stopped dwelling on the fact that Williams was playing remarkably well for a 37-year-old.

That was because she was playing remarkably well for a player of any age.