Tuesday July 10th, 2007

Let's pretend you are, say, an insurance salesman. You're damn good at your job, world-class even. You clock in every day. You miss family functions on account of work. You try like hell to improve your performance rating and keep ascending the ladder. But there are these two colleagues -- siblings, no less! -- blocking your progress. They seem to pop into the office only when the mood strikes. They miss all the meetings and those insufferable "team building" outings because they're off acting or designing clothes or doing Lord knows what else. They take lots of sick leave, too. But when there's money on the table, they're the best around. They swoop in, perform with breathtaking skill and close the biggest accounts. Argh!

So perhaps you can commiserate with the rank-and-file on the WTA Tour. Most of the women are full-timers, devoting their lives to tennis. Yet, again and again Serena and Venus Williams emerge, often from far off the radar, to win the biggest tournaments. At January's Australian Open, Serena entered ranked No. 81, having played just four events in all of last year, and took the title. Last week at waterlogged Wimbledon, it was Venus's turn.

Williams the Elder descended on London ranked No. 31, seeded 23rd only by virtue of her previous grass-court success. She had played so poorly last month at the French Open, failing to get past the third round, that her father, Richard, said she might as well shelve her rackets. Even at Wimbledon she was hardly the picture of single-minded focus. She read. She played with the Mac program GarageBand. She strolled hand-in-hand with her boyfriend, PGA Tour player Hank Kuehne. "I was like, 'Shouldn't you be concentrating more on your matches?' " her mother and coach, Oracene Price, says with a laugh.

No matter. On Saturday, by the time Venus had pasted her final serve and lasered her last crosscourt forehand, capping a stunning display of grass-court tennis, she had won her fourth Wimbledon singles trophy. She was the lowest-ranked female ever to take the title. She added still another chapter to her family's endlessly engrossing narrative. And none of it surprised her. "I always believe in my game," she says. "Losing never really crosses my mind."

Hear that? Plenty is made of Williams's unmistakable physical gifts, and they were on vivid display last week. It's not for nothing that Williams has won four of her six career majors on the lawns of the All England Club, a surface that rewards movement and power. The best athlete in the history of women's tennis, Williams scurried from sideline to sideline, not only reaching every ball but also blasting it back. Her average serve for the tournament traveled at 115 mph, a speed that all but seven other female players failed to clock even once. Williams even won her share of points at the net. But ultimately this was more a triumph of will than of ability. For all her other assets, Williams possesses the most precious tennis gift of all: boundless self-confidence. Like Serena, Venus is, as she puts it, "a big-match player." To her way of thinking, self-belief conquers all, from stale form to nagging injuries.

In her first- and third-round matches Williams struggled to find the court with her ground strokes and was a few points from losing to no-names. On the brink of elimination, however, she summoned her best tennis, simply refusing to miss a ball. Then she faced three of the WTA's top six players -- Russia's Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serbia's Ana Ivanovic -- and made steak-and-kidney pie of each of them. Like most courtside observers, Williams sensed fear across the net. "No matter what [I'm] ranked, I think the other players feel at a disadvantage," she says. "They feel like they have to play their best, and I have to play not my best."

In the final Williams held off Marion Bartoli, an endearing, little-known French player who noted that Pierce Brosnan's courtside presence inspired her seismic semifinal upset of top-seed Justine Henin. Coached by her father, Walter Bartoli, a doctor who quit his practice in a rural town to travel with her, Marion plays quirky tennis predicated on angles rather than on brute force. Williams was initially thrown off by Bartoli's unconventional style and two-fisted forehand, but she adjusted, showing a knack for strategy and finesse that she's too seldom credited with having. "When she plays like this on grass, it's not possible to beat her," Bartoli said. "She's just too good, you know?"

Williams's renaissance helped salvage what was, until late in its second week, a doomed event. A column in the Guardian went so far as to suggest that this was "the worst [Wimbledon] ever." During the first week of play there were three attempted car bombings in the U.K., leading to tightened security at the All England Club and a palpable sense of unease. And then the rain came -- so relentless that one half-expected to see animals lined up in twos near the Tube station -- saturating the courts and constipating the match schedule.

The tournament cannot be blamed, of course, for terrorist sleeper cells or for inclement weather. But the organizers did themselves no favors by stubbornly favoring ritual over common sense. As a result we saw just how fine a line there is between charm and obsolescence. Despite a gloomy second-week forecast, there were, in keeping with tradition, no matches on the middle Sunday -- which, naturally, was a gloriously sunny day. "It's a residential area, and we have to respect our neighbors' day of rest," said a club spokesman. The decision, which disrupted the rhythm of the tournament and deprived the common fan of a weekend session, became all the more maddening when three days of rain followed.

Again owing to tradition, the tournament insists on forgoing tiebreakers in the third set of women's matches and the fifth of men's. With clear skies at a premium and the schedule already snarled, one men's doubles match ended with the absurd score of 5-7, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 28-26. What's more, many of the scheduling decisions were illogical. French Open champion Rafael Nadal's contentious third-round match against Sweden's Robin Soderling spanned five days and eight rain delays, the two men marching mindlessly between court and locker room like Buckingham Palace guards. "They don't think very much about the players here, maybe," groused Nadal.

A beneficiary of it all was Roger Federer, the one player least in need of good fortune at Wimbledon. The four-time defending champion won his third-round match on the first Friday of the fortnight. After his next opponent withdrew with a stomach injury, the Mighty Fed didn't appear back on court for six days. Where's Roger? became a mid-tournament parlor game. "We've been stuck in a locker room, and he's been chilling out, taking the double-decker bus red thing tour," suggested Andy Roddick, who lost in the quarterfinals to Richard Gasquet. Federer, in fact, spent the rain delays mostly inside his rented home, though he did venture out to get a haircut.

When he reemerged, refreshed and reshorn, his game showed little rust. Someone once wrote that the best mysteries are those you'd read even if you knew the ending in advance. So it is with Federer. That he was going to win his fifth consecutive Wimbledon, tying Bjorn Borg's modern record, was considered by many a foregone conclusion. How he did it made for gripping theater.

Against his first five opponents -- the pre-Rafaelites, as it were -- Federer played typically sumptuous tennis. More than any other surface, grass highlights the completeness of his game. On some points he served and volleyed, venturing where few dare to tread (the net) and showcasing his deft hands. On other points he stayed back and demonstrated his power from the baseline. When necessary he displayed his touch, hitting spin-laden shots that appeared destined to hit the royal box and, as if suddenly thinking better of it, dipped into the court.

Before the tournament, one of the few knocks on Federer (as if world domination were somehow his fault) went something like this: He's not battle-tested; he's never had a 15-round knockdown, drag-out title fight that really tested his mettle. No more. In brilliant Sunday sunshine the Federer-Nadal final -- the latest installment in the best rivalry men's tennis has given us since Borg-McEnroe -- was less a tennis match than a four-hour passion play.

The players swapped the first two sets, and Federer won the third in a tiebreaker, serving brilliantly but barely running down the whipping lefty groundstrokes of Nadal, who abandoned his customary defensive game and went on the attack, painting the corners and even occasionally charging the net to finish off a point. Nadal won the fourth set easily and, with break points in two of Federer's first three service games in the fifth, seemed on the verge of taking Federer down on his home court and seizing primacy in men's tennis. But with Nadal serving at 2-3 in the fifth set, Federer, like Williams, showed that he has courage to match his physical gifts. Under the most tense circumstances he pulled off three forehand winners, one more spectacular than the next, to win the game. Inasmuch as a man with 11 major titles can have a career-defining moment, this might have been it. A few minutes later he punctuated the match, fittingly enough, with a smash. He fell to his knees in the manner of Borg -- who was looking on from the royal box -- and then embraced Nadal, who ought to take comfort in the knowledge that he will win this event one day. "In a way I was looking for a match like this," Federer said afterward. "Getting to a Grand Slam final, playing Nadal, five sets. It was an ultimate test, and it feels great to come through it."

Federer's winning can seem so numbingly familiar that it's easy to overlook the magnitude of his achievement on Sunday. He has now reached the finals of nine straight majors and won seven of them. Regardless of what happens at the U.S. Open -- where he is the three-time defending champion -- he will have won at least two majors in each of the past four seasons. Last week no less than Pete Sampras, owner of a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, conceded, "I think he will break any tennis record that's out there."

In this, the first year of equal prize money at Wimbledon -- see, some stodgy traditions can be overcome -- Williams and Federer each earned roughly $1.4 million for their time and effort. Still, they were underpaid. They redeemed the tournament. It's a recurring theme in tennis: In the end the champions make order out of the chaos.

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