GRAF ECLIPSES VENUS IN A SUBLIME DRAMA

WIMBLEDON, England — For hours and hours, through sunshine, through clouds, through three rain delays that stretched an early-afternoon tennis match into a day-and-night marathon, Steffi Graf circled Venus Williams, looking for an answer. She circled her the way a bird circles a cat, the way a boy circles a giant tree, the way a climber circles a nasty peak, trying to figure an answer to the unbeatable.

Venus is coming, like a train in the dark, like a boulder in an avalanche. Everyone who plays the young hurricane these days knows it, knows that at any moment, she pulls herself up over the ledge and that’s it, the mountain is hers. Those shots are too hard. That reach is too wide. That speed is too unstoppable. So it’s all about holding her off, for one more day, for one more match. If you’re older, her senior, it’s just a matter of time.

Which is what made Thursday’s quarterfinal between Graf, 30, a seven-time All England champion, and Williams, 19, still sniffing for her first Grand Slam title, one of those great Wimbledon moments that even the ridiculous five hours’ worth of rain delays couldn’t spoil. One of those clashes that pit a former champion in the last throes of her glitter against an up-and-coming challenger devoid of nerves and hungry like the wolf. In such cases, either player can win and should win.

And so they did battle that way, together for the first time on hallowed Centre Court. It was an epic. One hour and 55 minutes of tennis, laced with five hours and 11 minutes of nervous waiting, countless food breaks, bathroom visits, moments spent staring at the sky, one player wondering if this match would mean her last Wimbledon crown, the other wondering if it would mean her first.

“Considering what we endured,” Graf would say when it was all over, and the streetlights were on and twilight had long since dropped on the grounds, “that was unbelievable tennis.”

You shoulda been there.

Great tennis in bad circumstances

It began innocently enough, with Graf chipping away at the taller, stronger, longer-wing-spanned Williams. Graf’s trademark floating backhand slices kept Williams at bay, like swatting at a bee, until Steffi could bring the hammer down, her famous forehand. Venus would lunge at the change of pace and hit long or wide.

It worked well at the start, and Graf won the last four games of the first set to take it, 6-2.

Four games into the second set, with the score tied, the rain came, and off they went.

And when they returned, Venus had grown up a bit more. She can be like one of those science fiction characters who age before your eyes, getting wiser, absorbing you. She began coming smartly to the net, and at 6-feet-plus, when Venus comes to the net, it’s like a planet appearing in your spaceship window. Graf misfired often, or hit into Williams’ wheelhouse. Venus took three straight games, survived a break, then broke back, winning the set, 6-3, with a wicked forehand.

At 3:20 in the afternoon, they stood even, one set apiece.

And then, another rain delay, 90 minutes of tennis interruptus. And then, after a mere two games, another rain delay, this one 2 1/2 hours.

No one should have to endure this. You can’t go anywhere. You have to sit in the locker room, play cards, try to rest, eat something. Any other business would have called it a day. And yet, despite the dropping temperatures and fading light, every time these two came back out, they zoomed to incredible form, running each other all over the court, hitting blistering forehands that tucked into corners and low angled drop shots that nearly sat down in the grass. They pushed each other to the best inside them, a bold game of chicken with feet slammed on the gas.

In their final encore, well after 7 p.m. with empty seats all over the stands, they at last finished their battle. Graf, the wizened soldier, relied on tactics rather than power. She drew Venus to one spot, then, with an obvious open court to hit into, fired back one more time at Venus’ legs. The younger player was caught off-guard just enough for Graf to steal an advantage. Graf broke Williams once, in the fifth game, and that would be all she needed for a 6-4 victory.

The match ended with darkness falling and Williams hitting wide. The remaining fans roared, partly out of relief, and Graf beamed as she ran in place, shaking her fist like a track star on a stationary victory lap.

Williams heir apparent to No. 1

Remember that not long ago Graf never figured to be back in a Wimbledon semifinal. Injuries, surgery, problems at home and sheer age seemed to take their toll. Besides, all her opponents were teenagers.

“I try not to think about the age thing,” she said afterward. “To me, they’re just the people I have to play.”

But even Graf — who in a stunning comeback won the French Open — admits Williams is in her own league. “I’ve never had to play that hard to get to a semifinal,” Graf said. “She is definitely, I believe, the future No. 1.”

Which for now will have to suffice for Williams. No doubt some think this is good, as she and her 17-year-old sister, Serena, have been bragging about their inevitable superiority long before they have achieved it.

But we’d better get used to Venus, because she isn’t going anywhere. Her father may be an insufferable braggart, and his us-against-the-world coaching approach may lead to a world-against-them response — but there is no denying Venus’ talent or intelligence. Her hands are on the ledge, and she is lifting herself ever closer to that peak.

“Can you see yourself playing here at 30 one day, like Steffi?” Williams was asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I have a short attention span.”

Give it time, kid. You’re just getting started.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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