Stars Align Just Right For Clear View Of Venus

By Geoff Calkins
Updated: February 25, 2007

MEMPHIS – Venus Williams had waited for this moment for nearly two years. Match point. At last. After the injury and the rehab and the tumble in the rankings.

“Stay focused,” said her father, Richard Williams, from up in the stands. Shahar Peer missed with her first serve. Her second serve spun in.

Williams stayed focused. She moved to the ball — “like the South wind,” said her father — and blistered a winner into the corner. Then she gave a little skip. She applauded the moment with her racquet. She waved to her father and to everyone.

“I’m soooooooo excited,” she said. Right back at you, Venus.

Because if anyone was as thrilled as Williams about her first championship since Wimbledon in 2005, it was, OK, every single person who packed this place to watch her.

“Thank you to the Memphis fans,” said Williams. “I’ve gotten so much love here …”

She kept talking after that, it was just impossible to hear her. The stadium court filled once again with hoots and cheers. Williams lifted the crystal bowl over her head, almost bashful.

“I love you so much and I hope to be back next year,” she said.

Hear that? She hopes to be back next year. But, you know, it almost doesn’t matter at this point. Because how do you reproduce this week? How do you replicate magic?

That’s the word Mac Winker, owner of the Racquet Club, picked to describe the Williams in Memphis phenomenon.

“It’s been magical,” he said. “For me, it’s absolutely one of the highlights of my 29 years (with the tournament).”

And it was a pure fluke, the way it came together. Williams had planned to play in Belgium last week. But her game didn’t feel quite right so instead she settled on Memphis.

The rest happened because it was meant to happen, the spontaneous response, the phones ringing off the hook at the ticket office, the unprecedented crowd at the Racquet Club for the Monday opener.

That’s the night 71-year-old Sarah Callicutt came to watch her first tennis match and wound up in the newspaper.

The next day, Clyde Walls, 80, stopped by the paper because he wanted to pay for Callicutt’s $25 ticket. Walls is black. He’s a minister.

At roughly the same time, Connie Loeb, 42, sent an e-mail asking if she could help find Callicutt a better seat for the rest of Williams’s matches. Loeb is white. She’s a member of The Racquet Club.

“It’s the least I could do,” she said. “What’s happening at The Racquet Club this week has been incredible. It’s black Memphis and it’s white Memphis and it’s all because of Venus.”

Of course, there was also the tennis part of it. Williams had missed nearly seven months with a bum wrist. The rust showed her first few matches.

Then came Saturday, and the championship match against Peer, who had taken Serena Williams to three sets at the recent Australian Open.

Venus never gave her a chance, winning 6-1, 6-1.

“I like to hit the ball,” she said. “I like it when it goes crack. I like that sound, I like to unleash.”

Peer, the unleashee, seemed stunned by the onslaught.

“I missed the beginning of the match,” she said. “I didn’t see her playing like this all week.”

The first set took 30 minutes. The second set took 37. When it was done, a courtside announcer asked Williams what she had done so well.

“Hit it over the net,” cackled Richard Williams.

There’s a certain beauty in simplicity.

For the record, Richard — who had been highly critical of his daughter earlier in the week — had nothing but good things to say this time around.

“She played extremely well,” he said. He put the same thing in a text message to Serena.

“No question, she’s going to win more Grand Slams,” said her father. “She’s too talented not to.”

So it will be fun to see that unfold, knowing that the trip back up began in Memphis. And no matter what happens, Williams has already had an impact, at least according to Carla Brangenberg.

Brangenberg is the director of tennis and head pro at Leftwich Tennis Center. Saturday morning, she was surprised to find her phone blinking with messages.

“I counted 13 calls from parents who wanted to know about our programs,” she said. “That’s just one day. And that’s Venus.”