WIMBLEDON—When the news broke quite a while back that a pregnant Serena Williams would be out for the remainder of the 2017 season, informed observers realized that her sister might well be a contender for the most prestigious title in tennis again. Venus Williams reached the penultimate round at the All England Club a year ago, losing to Angelique Kerber. At the start of 2017, Serena toppled Venus in the final of the Australian Open. And now, here is Venus once more threatening to capture a major title at a place where she has ruled no fewer than five times. The most recent triumph for Venus here on the British grass was a long time ago. Back in 2008, she defeated Serena in the final with a dazzling Centre Court display, but she has not taken a major since.
And yet, Venus Williams is two matches away from an eighth career Grand Slam championship at the age of 37. She has moved into the semifinals with a 6-3, 7-5 triumph over French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko. In her five victories thus far, Williams has conceded only one set. She is indisputably the most comfortable of all the women left in the tournament on the lawns, as she demonstrably confirmed in this win over her 20-year-old adversary. Ostapenko gave it her all, overcame an inauspicious start to sink her teeth into the contest, and nearly took her American rival into a third set before falling in the end. Through the entire encounter, however, Williams remained calm, purposeful and sharply focussed on winning. There was no panic in the latter stages of the second set when Ostapenko was picking up confidence and performing with verve. Williams was stoic and strategic, fully aware of what she needed to do, capable of thwarting her opponent's power with excellent court positioning and tactical acumen.
At the start of this showdown, Williams was utterly in charge and Ostapenko simply could not find her bearings. The American was on top of the baseline, dictating the short rallies and serving with pace and precision. Here is how she came out of the gates: Venus served an ace down the T on the first point of the match, sending an unmistakable signal with that untouchable delivery. At 30-30, she served another ace down the T and then added one out wide in the ad court. Those three aces carried the No.10 seed to a 1-0 lead. Ostapenko led 30-15 in the second game but Williams bolted to 2-0 on a run of three points in a row, profiting from three Ostapenko errors in a row, all on down the line backhands. That is one of her best shots, but the weight of the Williams arsenal was too much for the younger player at that stage.
Williams held for 3-0 at 15, closing that game by outhitting her opponent in a fierce crosscourt forehand exchange. Seventeen points had been played in the match, and Williams had won twelve of them. But Ostapenko gained some comfort in the fourth game. A forehand drop volley winner took her to 40-15. She held at 30 for 1-3 with a forehand down the line winner. Venus surged to 40-0 in the fifth game with a pair of service winners, but double faulted and sent a forehand approach long. At 40-30, though, she did not falter, serving an ace down the T. It was 4-1 for Williams.
Ostapenko stood her ground, holding at 15 for 2-4, finishing with a wide serve that elicited an errant forehand down the line return from Williams. From 0-15 in the following game, the American swept four points in a row, all with serves that Ostapenko could not get back into play: 5-2 for Williams. Ostapenko took a 40-0 lead in the eighth game, dropped three points in a row, but held on from there with a backhand down the line winner and a netted backhand from Williams off a low ball. And so it was time for Williams to serve for the set in the ninth game. On her second set point at 40-30, Williams succeeded, going with a body serve, getting a bad bounce, and winning the point as Ostapenko barely touched it. Set to Williams, 6-3.
Williams had simply served too well in the first set, winning 79% of her first serve points and 56% on her second. She put 68% of her first serves in play but Ostapenko was down at 44%. But the complexion of the contest changed as soon as the second set commenced. Ostapenko held for 1-0 at 15 with a running forehand down the line winner. She had a break point in the second game but Williams drove a two-hander down the line to draw an errant forehand from Ostapenko. An ace from Williams gave her game point and she held on for 1-1 when the No. 13 seed netted a backhand down the line.
Now Williams made her move, breaking at love on a stream of errors, three off the backhand and one on the forehand wing. It was 2-1 for Williams. She was up a set and a break. Soon she arrived at 3-1, holding at 30 after serving an ace for 40-0. Ostapenko held at 30 for 2-3, hitting two winners off the backhand and taking the 40-30 point with a body serve to the forehand. Now at last she broke her renowned adversary in the sixth game. Venus served an ace for 15-15 but never won another point, double faulting into the net at 15-40. Revitalized, the 20-year-old went to 4-3 with a hold at 15. After double faulting on the first point of that seventh game, Ostapenko delicately produced a forehand half volley winner, a forehand down the line winner, a superb low backhand passing shot down the line that Williams could not deal with, and then an ace down the T. That sequence gave Ostapenko a 4-3 lead.
Williams held at 15 for 4-4, winning three points in that game with well directed body serves. Yet Ostapenko opened the ninth game with a forehand swing volley winner. She held at 30 with a T serve that drew a return error off the forehand from Williams. Ostapenko had built a 5-4 lead, and seemed to be sensing she could win the set. With extraordinary depth on her ground strokes, Ostapenko reached 15-30 on the Williams serve in the critical tenth game, standing two points away from a third set, knowing she was right where she wanted to be.
But Williams met that moment propitiously, serving an ace down the T for 30-30 and then connecting with two more first serves that coaxed return errors from a slightly overanxious Ostapenko. In a flash, Williams had moved from a precarious position to 5-5. She would never look back, breaking at 15 for 6-5 with a deep forehand crosscourt forcing a mistake from Ostapenko. Serving for the match in the twelfth game, Williams held at love, taking three of those points with fine placement on her delivery. Williams had triumphed 6-3, 7-5 for her place in the semifinals.
Now she faces No. 6 seed Johanna Konta. Konta is appearing in her sixth Wimbledon.The first four times she played the world's premier tournament, she lost in the first round. Last year she was beaten in the second round. The 26-year-old established herself as the first British woman since Virginia Wade in 1978 to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon. She will be highly motivated to halt Williams and get to her first final at a Grand Slam event.
Konta holds a 3-2 career head to head advantage over Williams, who won their last encounter on clay in Rome. They have never met on grass. The surface works slightly in Venus's favor, but no more than that. Konta is an ultra aggressive player trying to follow up on an impressive come from behind victory over Simona Halep in the quarterfinals.
The Williams-Konta semifinal will be a fascinating clash between two strong willed individuals who are thoroughly determined to reach the title round. At 37, Venus Williams knows she will not have too many more opportunities like this to capture a major. This is a golden opportunity for the American but Konta will definitely test her more comprehensively than anyone else has in this tournament. It could be a very close contest and might be settled in the end on the basis of just a few big points. Konta will have the Centre Court crowd fervently on her side. Wade was the last British woman to win Wimbledon or any major in 1977. She was also the last to be in a final that same year on the Centre Court.
So both competitors will have an awful lot riding on the outcome of their semifinal. For Johanna Konta, it is a chance to raise her stature considerably and make a much a larger name for herself on the international stage. For Venus Willliams, the stakes may well be even bigger. She wants to serve her way into the final and attempt to secure another major title nine years after taking her last one. I give her about a 51-49 chance against Konta, basing that assumption primarily on her experience. Win or lose, Venus Williams should be immensely proud that for the second time this year she has gone very deep into a Grand Slam tournament, leaving her followers exhilarated by such a stellar showing.