Bashful Venus slips quietly back into the limelight

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Venus Williams beats Johanna Konta to secure her place in the 2017 Wimbledon final

More than a few people had money on a great former champion now in their sporting dotage fighting through the rounds and years for another tilt at the Wimbledon singles crown.

It just happened to be Roger Federer, rather than a woman two years older than him who had not won a Grand Slam singles title for nine years.

By taking Britain’s Johanna Konta apart in straight sets before a wilting Centre Court crowd, Venus Williams has moved within one match of becoming the oldest ladies’ singles champion in more than a century. If that makes a mockery of time, it is worth considering that when the American turned professional in October 1994, Konta was three years old.

Should Williams beat Garbine Muguruza on Saturday, it would come 17 years after her first Wimbledon singles title. Martina Navratilova, whose own longevity was once considered remarkable, had a stretch of 12 years here, Steffi Graf eight.

Wimbledon 2017: Venus Williams ends Johanna Konta’s dream, happy feet & funnies

This was not supposed to happen.

It is nine years since Venus beat her younger sister Serena in straight sets for the most recent of her five singles title here. It is five since she lost in straight sets in the first round to Elena Vesnina. She had three and a half years after that when she failed to make it even to the second week of a Grand Slam tournament.

You might expect her to be giddy with adrenaline afterwards, thrilled to be back for one last shot at the title that defined her career. Being Venus, she instead looked like someone who had just woken from a long restorative nap, as bashful as the teenager who first played on these courts in 1997, as softly spoken as a kid thrust into a news conference for the very first time.

Asked how excited she was, she blinked slowly, thought about it and sighed. “Yeah, um… yeah.” Asked about the double-fault Konta had produced on her first service of the match, she had no recollection it.

Someone suggested there might be lessons to be taken from Serena’s defeat of Muguruza in the final of 2015. She had no idea when it had taken place.

Venus (back) with sister Serena – the younger sibling gives names to her on-court personas, while Venus has always remained a cooler, more distant figure

Some elite athletes project an image of impregnability. Venus takes on the world by appearing to be oblivious to it.

Two years from her fourth decade, she is a warrior who keeps a shield up at all times. In the Royal Box on Thursday afternoon were two other great veteran entertainers, Shirley Bassey and Elaine Paige. History might be repeating for Venus, but we still don’t know her so well.

Some of that comes from a life lived in the spotlight, some from the influence of her sister. Serena has a name for the personalities she deploys on court: Summer, who is all smiles and thank-you notes; Psycho Serena, the feisty competitor; Taquanda, the one who screams and shouts and says things to line judges that no line judge should expect to hear.

Venus prefers to stay as distant as a planet. Only occasionally does the guard drop, as when she left a news conference earlier in this tournament after being asked about the crash in Florida which led to the death of a passenger in a car that collided with hers. All other questions are met with a stop volley.

Wimbledon 2017: ‘Immaculate’ Venus Williams serve ‘handcuffs’ Johanna Konta

With the years comes experience, not only of these sorts of hype-heavy Grand Slam occasions, but of how to find the holes in the defence of an opponent who has just beaten the world number two and who beat Williams herself in their last meeting.

Centre Court was ready to celebrate on Thursday, Henman Hill so packed that spectators were reduced to queuing for a gap in a hedge at the back that was itself 50 metres from the video screen. Williams had let Konta walk out ahead, comfortable in herself, confident in her chosen tactics.

For a while it was tight. At 4-4 in the first set, Konta had two break points, one of them on a second serve.

Venus slammed shut the fly-trap with and then tucked into Konta’s serve. Big depth on the first return, more power and depth on the second. She broke the Briton in a run of seven points in a row, and home hopes went south with the set.

Konta would win just a third of the points on her second serve, and just 26% of receiving points. In a second set that accelerated towards its end, the American’s groundstrokes pulled her opponent around in a way that shattered the sweet rhythm she had sat in all tournament.

By reaching the final of the Australian Open in January, 20 years on from her maiden US Open final, Williams had already set a record for the longest span between singles Slam finals in the open era.

That seemed like a comeback enough, six years on from being diagnosed with the debilitating autoimmune disease Sjogren’s syndrome. Much of her time has been spent preparing for the next chapter – expanding her fashion label EleVen, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Indiana University East in August 2015.

Williams’ last Wimbledon title – and last major title – came in 2008

She puts some of that durability down to her ‘chegan’ diet (mostly vegan, with the occasional bit of cheating). There has been a sense here too of wanting to compensate for the absence of Serena, away preparing for the birth of her first child.

While she will never show it publicly, there is something else too: a love for the game at a point when most have happily slipped into sporting retirement, an ability to keep fighting when quite enough has already been won.

Federer in the semi-finals on Friday, Venus returning to Centre Court on Saturday. Wimbledon, a championships awash with history, is going back to the future once again.

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