Williams' comeback defies logical thinking
It was shaping up to be one of the most boring, melodramatic finals in Bausch & Lomb tournament history.
An impatient Venus Williams kept hitting balls out, which soon gave way to her displaying that notorious disinterested look she gets when nothing she tries is working.
Williams was down one set and 4-love Sunday, then trailing 15-40 on her serve in the next game against Justine Henin, the No. 9-ranked player in the world.
"My God, I thought I was going down," Williams admitted.
Her hitting partner this week, ATP tennis director David Witt, had similar thoughts of doom watching the tournament's top seed lose five consecutive service games and spraying shots all over the stadium court at Amelia Island Racquet Park.
"She was two minutes away from being in the shower," said Witt.
Then with no forewarning, it happened. The Belgian waffled.
Bit by bit, Henin's lead, which looked much safer than anything Tiger Woods had on the back nine at Augusta, just withered away. She served for the match at 5-4 in both the second and third sets. She was two points away from victory on three different occasions.
Henin tried to console herself with the fact she regained some lost confidence by reaching the Bausch & Lomb final after flaming out in her first match at the Nasdaq-100 Open. But deep down, this inexplicable collapse in a 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 loss to Williams had to hurt.
"At this time, I'm a little sad," said Henin. "I played well until I had to finish the match."
But a double fault here, a netted backhand there, and suddenly, Henin's playing these mind games with herself and everything gradually starts to fall apart. Williams is back in a match that she was never in for the first 40 minutes.
"At 6-2, 4-0, I was thinking, 'Be careful,' " said Henin. "I was probably thinking too early about the victory. A great champion can always come back."
Sure enough, two hours later, the two-time defending Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion was hoisting a Waterford crystal trophy. And a gracious, but dumbfounded Henin was kicking herself for blowing the biggest lead of her career.
Understand this much about professional tennis on both sides of the gender line: Outside of a reborn Jennifer Capriati, it's almost unheard of for anybody to rally from that kind of deficit against a Top 10-caliber player.
Somebody ranked No. 75 might let a seemingly insurmountable lead slip away, but rarely does it happen to someone good enough to be a French Open semifinalist and Wimbledon finalist like Henin. And now this year, surprisingly, it has happened twice. Martina Hingis also blew a one-set, 4-love lead to Capriati in the Australian Open final.
For Williams, this was a comeback of epic proportions, saying it ranked even higher on her list than overcoming eight match points against Capriati at the 2001 Ericsson Open.
"By the time I got down 4-love in the second set, I didn't know what to think," said Williams.
When it was over, the 21-year-old Floridian was so spent that she barely had the energy to give the sellout crowd a victory bow. The winner's check for Williams' 25th career singles title might have been for $93,000, but this was a million-dollar comeback.
Williams could finally breathe a sigh of relief. All because Henin let her come up for air.