WIMBLEDON, England – Venus Williams (search) leaned against the wall behind the baseline for several seconds, gasping for air. At the other end of the court, Lindsay Davenport (search) doubled over, using her racket like a cane to rest a bothersome back.
Williams had just hit a forehand to win a 25-shot exchange in the third set, the longest point in the longest Wimbledon (search) women's final on record, and neither she nor Davenport looked particularly eager to resume play.
They did, of course, and 10 minutes later, Williams' stamina and strokes allowed her to complete a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7 victory over Davenport on Saturday for her third Wimbledon championship and first Grand Slam title in nearly four years.
Barely, just barely, better than the top-ranked Davenport on this cloudy and chilly afternoon, Williams pulled off two impressive comebacks all at once: She is the first woman in 70 years to win at the All England Club after facing a championship point, and she returned to the top of the tennis world after two years of personal and professional setbacks.
Once No. 1 in the world, then just second best in her family, Williams had won only one tournament in the last 13 months and tumbled in the rankings. At No. 14, she is Wimbledon's lowest-seeded women's champion.
"It has special meaning," Williams said. "I wasn't supposed to win."
She hadn't been past the quarterfinals at a major since losing the 2003 Wimbledon final to younger sister Serena while struggling with a torn abdominal muscle. That was just part of a long line of injuries and losses, difficulties that were easy to deal with compared to the shooting death of half-sister Yetunde in September 2003.
"It's been a tough two years," said Williams' mother, Oracene Price. "It's been a long time coming for her."
Davenport's been waiting 51/2 years since her last major title, and she looked poised to end that drought Saturday. She won the first set — the only one Williams lost this fortnight — and served for the championship after breaking for a 6-5 lead in the second. But Williams would not go quietly, dialing up the volume of her grunts and the power of her groundstrokes to break at love for 6-6 and then claim the tiebreaker.
"I just spent so much time behind that the only time I think I was in front was when I won the match," said Williams, who had lost her past five Grand Slam finals, all to her sister. "I guess somehow I stayed in there."
Did she ever.
Little sis might be the one with the nascent acting career, but it was the elder Williams who combined with Davenport to script a 2-hour, 45-minute drama worthy of London's West End. It's a lot to live up to for Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, who meet Sunday in a rematch of the 2004 men's final.
Roddick's shirt, shorts and arms were covered in dirt and grass stains from dives and tumbles Saturday as he completed a 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (10), 7-6 (5) semifinal victory over Thomas Johansson. The match was suspended because of rain in the first set Friday, when Federer easily beat Lleyton Hewitt, and resumed at noon Saturday.
The women's final followed on Centre Court, and if the play didn't always sparkle in the fading light — Williams double-faulted 10 times, Davenport five, and they combined for 56 unforced errors — it was riveting.
There were gasps in the stands when the normally unflappable Davenport railed at the chair umpire over a clearly incorrect call. And murmurs when Davenport left the court to get medical attention for her lower back (a problem she did not blame for her loss).
The tennis was most enthralling in the longest third set, by games, in a Wimbledon women's final since 1949.
Trailing 5-4, Williams double-faulted at 30-all to put Davenport within a single point of her fourth major title. But Williams smacked a gutsy backhand to stay in it, the sort of perfect shot she hit repeatedly in her semifinal victory over defending champion Maria Sharapova.
Another chance for Davenport came when she led 7-6, with Williams serving. Two consecutive unforced errors by Williams put her down 15-30, and the next point was that 25-stroke masterpiece, both players hitting hard shots until Williams again came through. It was one of her 49 winners, 19 more than Davenport.
"Every time the chips were down for Venus, she played unbelievable," Davenport said. "She just was incredible. Whenever I felt like I was just about to shut the door completely, it was like, 'Oops, let's open that back up."'
Williams broke for an 8-7 lead, then served it out. After Williams wasted her first match point with a double-fault, Davenport missed a forehand.
A moment later, Williams extended her arm across the net. But Davenport knew this match was worth more than a simple handshake and pulled Williams close for a hug.
Just participating in the match was a rush for Davenport, who said last year she probably wouldn't return to Wimbledon and planned to retire at the end of 2004.
What a shame that would have been. Since then, she's reached two major finals — she lost to Serena Williams at the Australian Open — and returned to No. 1 in the rankings.
"I'm playing better now than I have in years," said Davenport, 0-4 in major finals since winning the 2000 Australian Open. "I don't really feel like I have anything to really hang my head for or be ashamed of."
This was her 27th meeting against the older Williams, and while Davenport leads 14-13 overall, she trails 0-4 at the All England Club. That includes the 2000 final, when Williams won her first Slam title.
It's been a long journey to No. 5.
"Oh, no," Venus said. "I knew my destiny was to be in the winner's circle. There were times along the way where I didn't make it there. But I felt my destiny was definitely to win big titles, win lots of titles."