WIMBLEDON, England Venus Williams leaned against the wall behind the baseline for several seconds, gasping for air. At the other end of the court, Lindsay Davenport 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 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 a cloudy afternoon, Williams pulled off two impressive comebacks all at once:
She's the first woman in 70 years to win at the All England Club after facing a match point in the final, and she returned to the top of the tennis world after two years of personal and professional setbacks.
Once No. 1 in the rankings, then just No. 2 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 5 1/2 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.
''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 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 to get medical attention for her lower back (she didn't blame it for the 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 the semifinals against defending champion Maria Sharapova.
''That's what it's all about: stepping up on the big points,'' said Williams, one of six women to divvy up the past six Slam titles.
Another chance for Davenport came at 7-6, with Williams serving. Two Williams errors made it 15-30, and the next point was that 25-stroke masterpiece, both players hitting hard shots until Williams came through. It was one of her 49 winners, 19 more than Davenport.
''Whenever I felt like I was just about to shut the door completely,'' Davenport said, ''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 more than a handshake was called for, and they hugged.
Soon, Williams was hopping and laughing on her favorite patch of grass.
''Finally, I made it happen. I was able just to last a little bit longer than her,'' Williams said. ''I was just so excited. You could see that.''
Just participating in the match was a rush for Davenport, who considered retiring at the end of 2004. Since then, she's reached two major finals losing to Serena Williams at the Australian Open and returned to No. 1.
''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.''
She was also on the losing end when Venus Williams won her first Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2000.
It's been a long journey to No. 5. Did Venus ever doubt it would come?
''Oh, no,'' she 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.''
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