At Wimbledon, Serena Williams said she was the grandmother of the tour. Well, that might just make her older sister Venus the great-grandmother.
Never mind that the 36-year-old dashes about like the Olympian sprinter her father always wanted her to be, and never mind that her groundstrokes punish like a boxer in a back-alley brawl. And as for her serve, her semifinal opponent Alison Riske said it was right up there with the best in the game: Serena and Coco Vandeweghe.
Venus, of course, is quite a marvel. Some point out her off-court achievements. She has her own apparel company and gathered an online degree in accounting from the University of Indiana. (Ironically, on court she continually fails to keep track of the score.) Others point out all that she’s done for good, and many would say noble, causes. She fought against anti-Semitism in Dubai and has been a champion for equal rights. Others wonder how a woman who was hobbled by a serious auto-immune disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, can possibly compete as a world-class athlete. But competing she is. She reached the fourth round at the French Open and the semifinals at Wimbledon before claiming the doubles title with her sister.
And here in Palo Alto at the Bank of the West Classic, she powered her way through an eager teen local, CiCi Bellis, who is just 19 years younger than she is. All the while, she also amazed grizzled writers in the press room, where she reflected on all the shootings in America and said, “We’ve just forgotten how to love.” She also said she was inspired by a 10th-century English poem titled “Deor,” a 42-stanza classic which weaves in many a mythological reference to get across the message, “That passes, so may this.”
And indeed, for the sixth time in Stanford, her splendid run came to an end in the final, this time against Johanna Konta of Great Britain. Konta kicked off what has been a breakthrough year by straight-setting Venus in the first round of the Australian Open, but this time her win wasn’t so easy. For a while it looked routine, as the No. 3 seed used huge, well-placed serves and a blitz of forehand winners to race to a 7-5, 4-1 lead. Down a set and two breaks, Venus appeared lethargic, but it soon became apparent that she had her opponent right where she wanted her.
Why, you may ask? Well, while Venus was merely playing her 80th tour final and going for only her 50th tournament win, Konta was playing for her first title. The Brit born in Australia to Hungarian parents had made a point of emphasizing a simple aspect to many of her recent victories, including a ruthlessly powerful dispatch of 2013 champ Dominika Cibulkova in the semis. The key, according to Konta, was to focus on her breathing. Take a breath, and play to win.
But as the air grew steep and a landmark victory loomed, the 25-year-old began to spray forehands and miss put-aways. Off-pace mishits by Venus troubled her. She attempted drop shots, and they were clumsy. She netted routine volleys. Meanwhile, with nothing to lose, Venus began hitting with more force and aggression, varying her serve and winning the rallies. Within minutes, Konta found herself fighting off set points, first at 4-5, then at 5-6. Twice she succeeded, but on a third try she sent an easy ball flying, then left for a bathroom break, sending her coach Jose Manuel Garcia a sarcastic thumbs up on her way off the court.
“It’s all heart and she lays it out there every single match,” Venus’s coach David Witt told Rennae Stubbs during the lag in action. “I’ve never seen Venus give up.” But in the third set Konta displayed fortitude of her own, winning the longer rallies and scoring the first break. Still, when she served for the championship at 5-2, tentativeness reentered her game. More ill-timed drop shots. More forehands flying past the lines. Could a rerun of the second set be in the offing? Konta breathed deep, held steady and served big, including the last of her 11 aces. With a Venus return into the net, on her third match point, that debut title at last was hers.
“I know it’s not the winner you wanted, but thank you very much,” Konta told the crowd of 2,268, displaying a British flair for self-effacement. In fact, Konta’s win caps three successful Sundays in a row for British sport. First Andy Murray won Wimbledon. Next Great Britain’s Davis Cup squad defeated Serbia in Serbia. And now the first British woman to reach a Slam semi in 32 years and break the top 20 in 33 years has a title to her name.