Venus Williams was hurt. Her stomach muscles were searing, her brain was spinning, her breath was short. But her baby sister wouldn’t let up.
“You are a champion; now fight,” Serena Williams said. It was one of the more surreal chapters in the Williams family’s surreal history: Serena had advanced to the Wimbledon finals with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne but was back in the locker room two hours later, admonishing Venus to win herself.
Never before had one finalist worked so ardently to inspire another player to become her opponent. But to Serena, her sister needed help after aggravating an old abdominal injury. Serena had seen just how bad it was — Venus was already behind in her semi-final against Kim Clijsters when she began crouching over in pain — and when rain suspended play at the end of the first set, Serena ran to the locker room.
“I had to do something, I wanted her to fight,” Serena said later. And then she laughed. By the time it was all over, Venus had pulled off one of the more dramatic comebacks of her career, a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 win over the second-seeded Clijsters to set up the fifth all-Williams final in the last six Grand Slams. But in that moment in the locker room, Serena said she’d been deadly serious, as had Venus, who was as frightened as anything else.
“I think I really just panicked,” Venus confirmed. “I didn’t know if I could play, if I was going to be able to hit, and I couldn’t calm myself down.
“Basically, I didn’t really want to accept that this was happening again. I didn’t want to accept that I was probably going to have to play with pain.”
Venus originally suffered the injury in early May, midway through the final of a tournament in Warsaw.
But the twinges had been bothering her more than she’d let on, and Thursday the muscle gave completely, wrenching midway through a service motion in the match’s third game.
The pain rippled across her face, and while she served out the game, tightening the first-set score to 2-1, she knew she needed a trainer. “As a rule, I never play with pain, I generally retire immediately,” said Venus, who disappeared briefly into a courtside training room to have her stomach wrapped. “I just felt this time, I basically wanted to win.
“Whatever happened, I was going to play it out.”
She eked through the rest of the set but ceded it to Clijsters when she couldn’t get back an early break. And then the rain came.
For Venus, though, the rain break was a saving grace. Trainers gave her ice and tape, and her family provided inspiration.