LONDON, Great Britain - Venus Williams is a living Wimbledon legend. Her run to the semifinals this year on the 20th anniversary of her SW19 debut, the oldest woman to reach that stage since Martina Navratilova in 1994, has served to underline this further.
With the first of Venus's five singles titles coming 17 years ago - her defeated quarterfinal opponent Jelena Ostapenko, who would have been three years old at the time, admitted that she had no memory of it - it's worth revisiting the triumphs that have made Venus an icon here, and what they meant in the context of her career at the time.
2000: Prodigy fulfilled
Coming into Wimbledon in 2000, the elder Williams was 20 years old and at a career crossroads. She had backed up her spectacular 1997 run to the US Open final to become a solid Top 10 player and perennial Slam quarterfinalist and semifinalist in 1997-98 - but in taking the next step to Slam champion had been leapfrogged by sister Serena at the 1999 US Open. That, it seemed, had taken the wind out of Venus's career somewhat.
She was absent from the WTA Tour for the first five months of 2000 with tendinitis in both wrists; her return in the clay season had been scratchier than pundits had come to expect, and she had skipped the grass warm-ups.
As the No.5 seed, though, Venus swiftly proved - not for the last time - that she had the ability to come into a tournament cold but still walk off with the big prize. A first-week draw of tricky grass-courters - Kveta Hrdlickova (now Peschke), Ai Sugiyama, Nathalie Dechy and Sabine Appelmans - provided little difficulty, with only Dechy even pushing Venus to a tiebreak.
Venus's quarterfinal would be one of her career's defining victories, though. No.1 seed Martina Hingis had been her kryptonite on several big occasions, and led the head-to-head 9-4 - including all three of their Slam meetings - at that point. Yet Venus carved out a thrilling 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win to book a semifinal against none other than sister Serena. That would be a tense affair that reduced the younger Williams to tears as she fell 6-2, 7-6(3).
A final against No.2 seed Lindsay Davenport might not have had the same popcorn factor, but the toughness of the challenge shouldn't be underestimated: after all, Venus trailed 3-9 in the head-to-head against the three-time Slam champion at the time. When the younger American coughed up two double faults when serving for the title, allowing Davenport to level the second set at 5-5, it briefly seemed as though the pressure had got to her - but an efficient tiebreak for a 6-3, 7-6(3) win meant that Venus, at last, had risen to champion status. It opened the floodgates for her: not just in the unbounded joy and relief in her celebration, but in her tennis. That first Wimbledon was the start of a 35-match winning streak that would also encompass the US Open and Sydney Olympic Games.
2001: Dominance affirmed
By contrast, Venus would arrive in London the following year as the overwhelming favorite. Sure, the first half of her 2001 hadn't lived up to the spectacular standards of dominance she had set in 2000 - but even a first-round exit at Roland Garros at the hands of Barbara Schett was simply attributed to an unusually tough opponent on the American's least favored surface.
And so it proved. Again eschewing warm-ups, Venus confirmed once more how little she needed them, routing Shinobu Asagoe, Wimbledon debutante Daniela Hantuchova, No.29 seed Elena Likhovtseva and Nadia Petrova without conceding more than five games per match. In the quarterfinals, the grass-court wiles of 1998 runner-up Nathalie Tauziat proved a sterner test - for a set, anyway, before Venus ran away for a 7-5, 6-1 win.
Thereafter, both semifinal and final followed the same pattern: a lost middle set as mere bump in the road, bookended by first and third sets of utter dominance. No.3 seed Lindsay Davenport was Venus's victim in the last four: the previous year's final had shifted the momentum in their rivalry, and between 2000 and 2003 Venus would be the victor nine times out of 10 meetings. The second set blip here en route to a 6-2, 6-7(1), 6-1 win would be one of only four sets Venus would drop to Davenport in this period.
The final would be against the intriguing 19-year-old, Justine Henin, whose free-flowing one-handed backhand had thrilled audiences en route to a semifinal upset of No.4 seed Jennifer Capriati. The No.8 seed here, Henin would go on to win seven Slams and seal her own legendary place in tennis history, though she would never capture Wimbledon - but in her first Slam final, she was no match for Venus, who ruthlessly quelled a brief flash of second-set inspiration from the Belgian to the tune of 6-1, 3-6, 6-0. In total, this would be the lowest number of games Venus would concede on the way to any of her Wimbledon crowns.
2005: The rebirth
In many ways, Venus's third Wimbledon crown echoed her first: once again, she entered the tournament having been written off by many pundits, and with a lot to prove. She had been dislodged from her dominant 2000-01 perch, first by the unstoppable force of Serena Williams and her 2002-03 'Serena Slam' - which came at Venus's expense in four consecutive Slam finals - and then by an abdominal injury that saw the elder Williams sidelined for the second half of 2003.
On Venus's return at the start of 2004, she failed to immediately recapture her previous form. Over the following 18 months, she would win just three WTA Tour titles, and did not feature in any Slam semifinal. It was a far cry from the woman who had swept all before her three years previously, and she came into Wimbledon as an error-prone No.14 seed considered a long shot for the title.
When Venus set foot in SW19, though, all that changed. As they had before - and would again - the lawns of London made her imperious, accurate, unstoppable. Tight moments in the first week against Nicole Pratt and No.20 seed Daniela Hantuchova were handled with a champion's mentality, while Eva Birnerova and Jill Craybas were swept aside.
In the quarterfinals, No.12 seed Mary Pierce - fresh off a renaissance of her own in the form of a Roland Garros final - seemed to be heading the same way, quickly falling behind by a bagel set. But the 30-year-old raised her level to match Venus's, and the two hard-hitters would go on to play one of the finest sets of grass-court tennis in Centre Court history, a pulsating ride that Venus snatched with an epic 12-10 tiebreak.
A semifinal against No.2 seed Maria Sharapova reversed the arc of the quarterfinal: Venus eked out a tight first set on a tiebreak before running away with the match 7-6(2), 6-1, setting the stage for a repeat of that 2000 final against No.1 seed Lindsay Davenport.
This time, it would be a classic: two hours and 45 minutes of powerful, all-court ball-striking as Venus doggedly resisted defeat. Davenport would serve for the title at 6-5 in the second set; Venus escaped by attacking the net. In the decider, a Venus double fault would give the older American championship point; it would be snatched away from her as Venus rasped another backhand winner past her, and ultimately rode out a 4-6, 7-6(4), 9-7 victory that had her leaping into the air with uncontrolled, glorious glee.
2007: The veteran rises past the newcomers
By the ten-year anniversary of her Wimbledon debut, Venus's career had become something of a yo-yo as she struggled with her health. Having played just six tournaments in 2006 thanks to another wrist injury, she finished that year ranked No.46, and had raised it to just No.31 by the time Wimbledon 2007 rolled around.
Unlike in 2000 and 2005, the All England Club wasn't a sudden switch for her peak level to turn on this year. Venus had been bumped to the No.23 seed thanks to her illustrious record, but her first three rounds provided little evidence of that form. Instead, what Venus demonstrated was how to battle like a Wimbledon champion: in the first round, retrieving a 2-6, 0-2 deficit against Alla Kudryavtseva to win 2-6, 6-3, 7-5; and in the third round, trailing Akiko Morigami 3-5 in the deciding set to emerge 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.
Neither match contained much evidence that Venus could handle Top 10 opposition - but, revelling in proving the pundits wrong yet again, it was then that the 27-year-old found the switch she needed to dismiss three consecutive younger Top 10 rivals. In the fourth round, she pummeled No.2 seed Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-3; in the quarterfinals, No.5 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova was felled 6-3, 6-4; and Ana Ivanovic, the 19-year-old No.6 seed fresh off her first Slam final at Roland Garros, was no match either in the semifinals as she slipped to a 6-2, 6-4 defeat.
World No.1 Justine Henin, who would win ten titles in 2007, had been widely expected to be Venus's opponent in the final in a rematch of the 2001 championship match. But the Belgian had slipped to a semifinal defeat at the hands of unheralded No.18 seed Marion Bartoli, and the shockwaves were still reverberating as the Frenchwoman took to Centre Court for her maiden Slam final. Though Bartoli, a future Wimbledon champion, gave a good account of herself, there was no danger of a repeat surprise as Venus held steady for a 6-4, 6-1 win.
2008: Sisterly revenge
In a year of chaos on the WTA Tour, Venus - having solidly re-established herself as a member of the Top 10 - was a beacon of relative reliability in 2008. May saw the shock retirement of the previous year's World No.1, Justine Henin; Roland Garros champion Ana Ivanovic crashed out in the third round of Wimbledon to World No.133 Zheng Jie.
Venus, though, ploughed relentlessly through her SW19 draw. Though unexpectedly stretched to tight opening sets by local favorites Naomi Cavaday and Anne Keothavong, the champion was clutch in every decisive moment as she moved past them, and then María José Martínez Sánchez, Alisa Kleybanova and Tamarine Tanasugarn, to land in the semifinals without having dropped a set.
The same held true in the final four against Elena Dementieva: the No.5 seed, playing her first Wimbledon semifinal, was initially swept aside in the opening set. The Russian managed to keep the second close - but Venus rose to the occasion on the biggest points to move into the final 6-1, 7-6(3).
There, she would face a very different challenge. Eight years ago, her little sister Serena had been reduced to tears by the emotional weight of facing Venus across the net - but now, seven Slams (including four in a row) later, Serena had built her own legend in the sport, and was well on the way to becoming acclaimed as the greatest player of all time.
And most pertinently, Venus's early dominance of her younger sister had been overturned. The elder Williams had won their first five WTA Tour encounters; from Miami 2002, Serena reeled off seven of their next nine, including five times in Slam finals.
The Williams sisters have never seen their rivalry in conventional terms: a win for one is a win for the whole family, as they have often explained. It's fitting that Venus's most recent hurrah on Centre Court was a family affair - but also that this triumph was still a form of revenge, however sisterly, over one of the sport's most towering figures.