What makes a tennis match a classic? The venue, the occasion, the quality of play, the drama—and, occasionally, a beyond-the-lines twist that adds yet another spark. All of these factors were present when Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport squared off in the 2005 Wimbledon women’s singles final.
Each had previously made her share of history on Centre Court, Davenport taking the title in 1999, Williams winning it the next two years. But time passes swiftly in tennis. By 2005, Davenport hadn’t won a major since 2000. At Wimbledon in 2004, she was asked if that year would mark her final appearance at the All England Club.
“There’s probably a good chance that’s the case,” said the 28-year-old Davenport, “but nothing definitive.”
She’d subsequently lost in the semis to eventual champion Maria Sharapova. Venus that year had gone out earlier, losing in the second round to 30th-anked Karolina Sprem.
But rather than leave the game, Davenport had played terrific tennis in 2005. She’d reached the final of the Australian Open and was the first seed at Wimbledon, taking down Kim Clijsters in the round of 16, reigning US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarters and Amelie Mauresmo in the semis.
It had been a challenging year for Venus. She’d lost in the round of 16 at the Australian and the third round of Roland Garros. But Wimbledon was always the venue where Venus could best regain her confidence and display her tremendous range of all-court skills. The 14th-seeded Venus reached the final without the loss of a set, an effort highlighted by a crisp 7-6 (2), 6-1 win over defending champion Maria Sharapova in the semis.
Davenport and Venus were quite familiar with one another. This final would mark the 27th time they’d played one another, with Davenport holding a 14-12 edge. But Venus had won all three of their previous matches at Wimbledon.
“I think playing her is very similar to playing me,” she said. “I’m probably going to get to a few more balls. I have a bigger serve and that kind of thing. But definitely it’s somewhat like looking at me across the court.”
Venus’ analysis was spot on. From the start, the quality of play was high, each player striking her groundstrokes with familiar pace and depth. Early on, though, Davenport was in control, taking a 5-2 lead in the first set and soon enough, closing it out, 6-4.
The second was much tighter. Serving at 4-5, Davenport fought off a set point, then broke Venus in the next game to serve for the title. But Venus would not relent. She broke Davenport and then took the set in a tiebreaker, 7-4.
“There were so many swings of momentum, up and down, up and down,” Davenport said in a 2015 Vice story. “She kept fighting hard and coming back, and you know, she never cracks. Even when I was getting close, that was always when she played her best tennis.”
The pattern continued in the third. Davenport led 4-2, but was immediately broken back. Venus served at 4-5, 30-30 and double-faulted. Down championship point, she played like a champion, fighting it off with backhand down-the-line winner. At 7-all, she broke Davenport and closed it out at 15. In winning Wimbledon for the third time, Venus had also become the first woman to take the title from championship point down since Helen Wills had beaten Helen Jacobs in the 1935 final. “I knew my destiny was to be in the winner’s circle,” she said.
The day before the final, Venus had met with Wimbledon officials, urging them to offer equal prize money. Fitting indeed that she and Davenport had made a compelling case by playing what’s arguably the greatest women’s singles final in Wimbledon history. Two years later, equal prize money at last became a reality at SW 19—and once again, Venus won the title.