The ecstasy overwhelmed her.
The moment arrived. On Venus Williams’ second match point, her foe’s forehand whizzed long. The Australian Open semifinal was hers. She could not believe it. “This cannot be,” she seemed to say. A card-carrying introvert, she bent low to the ground and then exploded into a vibrant dance that seemed like an out-of-body experience. She twirled, she lept, she hugged herself, unleashed a shimmy or two and dipped into inventive shapes a jazz dancer would applaud – such a triumphant body language.
Tennis has relished many stunning celebrations. Aussie Pat Cash scrambled up to a Friends Box in England. Jim Courier jumped into an Australian river. French Open champ Yannick Noah embraced his dad, and the French Davis Cup team did a conga dance in Lyons. Still, Venus’ joy was pure, so free. It even topped her leaping jumps after beating Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon in 2005. And why not?
Over two decades ago, a wide-eyed, African-American waif with plain clothes and big dreams emerged in an Oakland, California arena. Her dad boldly informed us she and her sister would become No. 1 and No. 2 and revolutionize the game. Wouldn’t you know it, the sisters did zoom to the top, while turning a stodgy sport upside down.
Venus won Slams and collected Olympic gold, battled for equality and human rights and then struggled against a debilitating disease. Long ago, she became a certified tennis elder. “Goodness,” joked an Aussie grandmother from Hobart, “She should be home knitting.”
After all, Venus cemented her legacy long ago. Tall, elegant and grand, she has endless legs, and bolts about tennis courts with surprising grace. Her longevity is simply astounding.
All the while, she’s enigmatic – a beautiful mystery. Her gravitas is quiet. She holds her truths within. Serene and minimalist, she told us, “I have a good life, a good family, and a good little dog…I’m living the dream…I’m pretty good at tennis.”
Duh! The 36-year-old sailed through a soft draw without dropping a set, and,on this surprisingly cool Melbourne Thursday, gave a hot performance against a considerable foe.
No. 25 Coco Vandeweghe has much in common with Venus. She’s a born-in-California 6’1″ power gal who blasts missiles to the lines. Like Venus, she has a cool name: think Coco puffs or Coco blasts. And in Melbourne, Vandeweghe, dare we note, had been one “hot Coco.” With ease she took down Canadian Genie Bouchard and two recent Grand Slam winners: No. 7 Garbine Muguruza, the French Open champ, and No. 1 Angelique Kerber, the defending Aussie champ.
Yes, the tennis world was hoping for a “Play it again, Sam” slam final, one last All-Williams battle.
But Vandeweghe had other ideas. Never mind that she was only the No. 25 seed and had lost five straight matches prior to the Aussie Open. And yes, she can smash a racket with the best of them. Still, Coco promptly broke Venus’s serve in the opening game and used her easy, lean-in power and punishing serve to grab the first set 7-6(3).
But Coco was facing a legend, a lady who once told Elle magazine that she and Serena were “exactly the opposite of anything that ever happened before in the game. The old tennis world was pretty reserved, but Serena and I are bold. We stand out. We have color. We’re strong. We’re pretty. We have personality. We think things out. We’re smart.”
No kidding. Venus promptly began to attack Coco’s backhand, she upgraded her defense, improved her serve and surged, winning ten points in a row as she took the match by the throat and battled to a 6-7(3), 6-2, 6-3 win and then unleashed that celebration for the ages.
“I only saw a twirl,” the celebrated dance critic Serena Williams told IT. “But it was like a double [twirl]. I was like, gosh, she [was] doing that on her A-Team dance team. Quite impressive. Every time I try to do a double [pirouette], I really struggle…You could really see the happiness on Venus’s face…I’ve been there when she was down and out of it, and back in it. I’ve been there for all those moments”
So, it seems, have tennis fans. Now the sport will have yet another Williams moment, a flashback final. After Serena dismissed the extraordinary Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 6-2, 6-1 in 50 no-nonsense minutes, the sport began to prep for an epic final. It will be the 28th match between the sisters. Serena leads 16-11. It will be their eighth Slam final. Serena leads 5-2. And it will be their second Aussie Open final. Serena won the first one in 2003. Serena will be seeking to break Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Slams and if she wins will again be No 1. Venus, who incredibly is in her first Slam final since 2009, is seeking her eighth major.
Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou said the values behind what the sisters deliver are “huge and universal.” Venus’ coach David Witt spoke of Venus’ heart, and came off the court mumbling, “This is crazy.”
But so is this year’s Aussie Open. On the men’s side, Andy Roddick said,if Federer and Nadal landed up in the final, “it has to be the most important match in Australian Open history and possibly Grand Slam history.”
Saturday’s woman’s final could be epic too. Billie Jean King said the sisters “provide more drama, more bang for the buck, than anyone else in the sport.” To Mary Carillo, “Serena and her sister dance on the edge of a volcano more than any other champs I’ve watched.” John McEnroe was succinct, saying Serena and Venus were “the greatest story in sports history..”
Additional reporting by Tanya Liesegang