At an age when her contemporaries have long since retired, Venus Williams says she is playing some of the best tennis of her life, but the Wimbledon finalist isn’t finished yet as she eyes a place in the record books.
Williams is the oldest Wimbledon finalist for 23 years after she over-powered Britain’s Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-2.
The 37-year-old returns to the All England Club title match after an eight-year absence and will be the oldest Grand Slam champion in the Open era if she beats Spain’s Garbine Muguruza on Saturday.
That would give Venus a sixth Wimbledon title, and eighth Grand Slam crown, nine years after she last lifted the trophy, completing an incredible comeback after she battled an autoimmune disease that left her fatigued and threatened to force her out of tennis.
In the twilight of her career, Venus has hit a rich vein of form over the last 12 months. She was Australian Open runner-up in January to sister Serena, only to have her life thrown into turmoil last month when she was accidently involved in a car crash in Florida that led to the death of an elderly man.
A less strong-willed personality would have gone into hiding, but Venus, after choking back tears when asked about the incident at the start of Wimbledon, has taken solace in her tennis.
“There were definitely some issues. There’s definitely a lot of ups and downs,” Venus said. “I just try to hold my head up high, no matter what is happening in life. In sport especially, you have injuries. You have illnesses.
“You’re not going to be always playing 100 per cent. If I decide to walk out on the court, I try to just compete that day. That’s what I try to do.”
Ominously for Muguruza, who lost the 2015 Wimbledon final to Serena, the American is certain she is close to the form that saw her dominate a decade ago.
“I’ve played some good tennis in different points of my life. I think it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to play well and to be strong,” she said.
“Experience can either work against you or for you. I like to think it’s working for me. This year has been amazing in terms of my play, playing deep into the big events.
“I’m definitely in the position I want to be in. It’s a long two weeks. Now I’m knocking on the door for a title. This is where I want to be.”
Konta had marched onto Centre Court hoping to become the first British woman to reach the final since Virginia Wade in 1977, but the world number seven trudged off 73 minutes later with her dream in tatters
Serving a 106mph second serve on break point at 4-4 in the first set was just one example of the nerveless way Williams shattered Konta’s spirit.
“I don’t know if it was the be all and end all but it took my break point chance away. It showed why she’s a five-time champion,” Konta said. “That was one of the few opportunities I had and she took them away.”
Despite losing for the second time in a Grand Slam semi-final, Konta is convinced her run proves she can win a major one day.
“Quite honestly I think I was in with a shot of winning the tournament. I definitely don’t see why I won’t be a position to win a title like this one,” she said.
THE CONCHITA FACTOR
Inspired by the soothing words of former champion Conchita Martinez, Wimbledon finalist Muguruza believes she is ready to follow in her fellow Spaniard’s footsteps.
With Martinez in her corner, Muguruza will play Venus in Saturday’s final after crushing Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova 6-1, 6-1 in the last four on Thursday.
Martinez became the only Spanish woman to win Wimbledon when she defeated Martina Navratilova in the 1994 final and now she is back in a key role at the All England Club as Muguruza’s temporary coach. With Sam Sumyk, Muguruza’s regular coach, missing Wimbledon due to his wife’s pregnancy, Martinez offered to assist the 23-year-old.
Their partnership has proved an instant hit as Martinez, who also coaches Spain’s Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams, helped guide Muguruza back to the final two years after she lost to Serena Williams.
“I think she’s helping me to deal with the stress of the tournament, because it’s a long tournament,” Muguruza said of her 45-year-old compatriot. “I’ve been here a while already. So she just knows how to prepare, how to train, what to do.
“Not that I’m doing something different, honestly. But to have her by my side gives me also this little confidence on having someone that has won before.”
Muguruza is the first Spanish woman to reach more than one Wimbledon final since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who lost twice in the 1990s. Fittingly, it is Venus who lies in wait for Muguruza as the American star is the oldest Wimbledon finalist since Navratilova was beaten by Martinez 23 years ago.
Martinez’s calming influence has been ideal for the emotional Muguruza, who also remains in phone contact with Sumyk.
“Conchita and Sam are really working together. They are in contact. Before I do something, they both decided. So that magic is still happening,” said Muguruza. “I think I’m here because I’ve been working not only the last few days, but longer time, getting ready for this kind of moment.
“I think a lot of things are clicking also with her and the team this week, so it’s very nice.”
Since winning her maiden Grand Slam title at the French Open last year, Muguruza had endured something of a sophomore slump as her ranking dropped out of the top 10.
But she has rediscovered her mojo on grass and would climb into the top five if she wins Wimbledon.
To do that, she must emulate Martinez and stop another Williams name being etched onto the trophy.
“All the names that I read on the honours board, I know all of them. For the last years, you see a lot of Williams surname,” she said. “So I look forward to putting a Spanish name back there.”
* Story provided by AFP, video courtesy of wimbledon.com