Venus Ebony Starr Williams is an icon for reasons which far transcend championships earned and matches won. She is, of course, a tennis legend solely on the basis of what she has achieved on court, but she is independently a tennis legend for what she has done off the court in leading women’s tennis to a place of pay equality. She has taken the baton from Billie Jean King as a trailblazer in women’s tennis and women’s sports. She is, therefore, one of the most historically significant figures of the Open Era of professional tennis, even though her number of major titles is well below the Serena-Court-Graf-Navratilova-Evert tier. The reach and scope of Venus’s holistic contributions to women’s tennis cannot be easily measured or contained.
If forced to identify Venus’s greatest moment ON a tennis court, a few notes must be mentioned in advance. First, “greatest” (like “biggest” or “worst” or other attempts to find the foremost example of something) is very relative. It can be seen or filtered through many different prisms. Personal meaning is, of course, particular to the individual and what she herself thinks about a topic or question. “Greatest” can refer to an achievement which substantially enhanced a resume. The word can refer to a moment of profound significance for the sport — in this case, Venus’s first Wimbledon final against Serena might rate as the best answer. Many different matches could be Venus’s “greatest.”
If, however, one specifically associates “greatest” with “pure quality of tennis,” and more particularly links the word “greatest” with “quality under pressure,” one Venus match rises above the others.
Venus versus Martina Hingis in the 2000 U.S. Open was a tremendous match, but Hingis’s relative lack of longevity as a singles champion makes that match fade, rather than grow, in historical significance as the years go by. Venus versus Petra Kvitova in the third round of Wimbledon in 2014 was a classic. Venus lost that one, however. Venus’s 2008 Wimbledon win over Serena Williams was a high-quality match, but it was a high-quality match within the context of very tricky and windy conditions. It was not a dazzling match; it was much more a highly mature match and a display of two very capable players skillfully handling the most fragile form of tennis in a challenging environment.
Then, of course, everything Venus did in 2017 — at age 36 and 37 — will represent its own towering collection of accomplishments. Yet, those accomplishments were precisely significant as collections of work, not for any one match. Her Australian Open semifinal win over CoCo Vandeweghe was solid, but not extraordinary. Vandeweghe was not at her best in that match. Venus’s Wimbledon semifinal win over Jo Konta was an extremely good performance, but Konta offered less than complete resistance in the second set. Venus’s third set against Kvitova in the 2017 U.S. Open quarterfinals might have been the best single set of tennis played by WTA professionals last year, but it was only a set and not a match.
Maybe Venus has one more Wimbledon title in her — after all, if she could make the 2017 final at 37, she can do the same at 38, and then take the one extra step toward a sixth Venus Rosewater Dish. Yet, if she doesn’t get No. 6 at the All England Club, the greatest match in terms of quality under pressure is, in one person’s view, her 2005 Wimbledon final against Lindsay Davenport.
Unlike Hingis, Davenport displayed an appreciable measure of staying power on tour. Hers was not a career which briefly burned at a very bright level, only to fizzle out a few years later. There is something to be said for a matchup in which two very familiar opponents meet several years after their first encounter, and raise the quality of their tennis to a supreme elevation. That’s what Venus and Davenport did in their 27th and last match, eight years after their first meeting in 1997.
The quality of tennis unsheathed by Venus and Lindsay was exceptionally strong. One quickly recognizes a match in which every shot contains high levels of urgency and very few routine rally balls are hit. Even the most conventional crosscourt backhand is hit so solidly and cleanly that it requires a lot of skill — and comparatively less reaction time — for the other player to offer not just any response (i.e., keeping the ball in the court), but a response good enough that the other player can’t tee off on the next shot and win the point. Even if a player gets a ball back in the court, the failure to hit a ball with depth and pace will often set up the opponent for a sitter.
In Venus-Davenport 2005, ferocious backcourt exchanges simply kept escalating instead of one player bailing out of the rally at a relatively early point. Mary Carillo called it “big-babe tennis.” Others might have likened it to a 15-round heavyweight fight. Whatever your metaphor of choice might be, Venus and Davenport just kept trading blows, on and on and on, through three very even sets and into tennis’s equivalent of “extra time,” playing a 16-game third set.
The pressure and tension attached to this match reached levels higher than most major finals. Grand Slam championship matches are always laden with pressure and a sense of the weight of the occasion, but only the greatest major finals cross a threshold from “this is really interesting and entertaining” to “I CAN’T BREATHE! THIS IS TOO MUCH!”
Venus-Lindsay 2005 very, very clearly fit that latter description.
Venus double-faulted to give Davenport a championship point at 4-5 in the third, but then swiped away that brief glimmer of opportunity with a few laser-like groundstrokes to the corners of the court. She held for 5-5. The two women — standing in a Centre Court arena which was both cathedral for a high mass and cauldron for a searingly intense spectacle — remained on level terms through the 14th game and stood tied at 7-7. Davenport took down one great queen of Centre Court when she upset Steffi Graf in the 1999 Wimbledon final… but Venus would not allow the same thing to happen to her. Williams found the final finishing kick with a flurry of blistering shots Davenport could not adequately cover.
Wimbledon watchers remember a 9-7 final set most commonly for the 2008 men’s final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but this 9-7 maximum-length match deserved then — and deserves now — to be seen in the same glowing light.
Venus Williams has done so many things in and for tennis. In terms of the one match which outclasses all the others she has played in two full decades on tour (and counting), the 2005 Wimbledon final deserves to sit at the very top of a very long list.