Venus Williams’ hopes of becoming the oldest singles champion in US Open history were dashed earlier this month by her semi-final defeat to Sloane Stephens, but the 37-year-old American’s place in the sport’s record books has already been assured many times over.
Indeed, Stephens’ ultimate title triumph in New York was a reminder of one of the many records that Williams holds. As the world No.83, Stephens was the lowest ranked female singles champion in US Open history (if you discount the unranked Kim Clijsters’ win in 2009); at Wimbledon it is Williams who holds the record as the lowest ranked player ever to win the ladies’ singles title.
Williams was ranked No.31 in the world and was the No.23 seed when she beat Marion Bartoli to win at The Championships in 2007. It was the fourth of her five Wimbledon singles titles and broke a record she had set two years earlier, when she had lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish as the world No.16 and No.14 seed.
Stephens was only the fifth unseeded woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era. The others were Chris O’Neil (1979 Australian Open), Serena Williams (2007 Australian Open), Clijsters (2009 US Open) and Jelena Ostapenko (2017 French Open).
Remarkably, no unseeded player has ever won the ladies’ singles at The Championships, where full seedings were introduced as long ago as 1927. Until 1976 there were just eight seeds, but the number was increased to 12 in 1977, to 16 in 1978 and to 32 in 2001. Since 1975, when the Women’s Tennis Association launched its world rankings, these have been used as the basis for the seedings, though the All England Club reserves the right to make adjustments where appropriate.
Until 2000 only five ladies’ singles champions had not been among the top four seeds: Dorothy Round (No.7 seed in 1937), Shirley Fry (No.5 seed in 1956), Maria Bueno (No.6 seed in 1959), Angela Mortimer (No.7 seed in 1961) and Karen Susman (No.8 seed in 1962).
In the 21st century, however, victories by lower seeded players have become much more frequent. In 18 editions of The Championships since 1999, the title has been won 10 times by players outside the top four seeds and five times by players who were outside the top 10: Maria Sharapova (No.13 seed in 2004), Williams (No.14 seed in 2005 and No.23 seed in 2007), Marion Bartoli (No.15 seed in 2013) and Garbine Muguruza (No.14 seed in 2017).
Williams’ seeding was changed before The Championships of 2017 in recognition of the fact that her position at No.31 in the world rankings was not a fair reflection of the challenge she was likely to make. The champion of 2000, 2001 and 2005 had dropped down the rankings after playing only one tournament between The Championships 2006 and the following February because of a wrist injury.
The All England Club seeded Williams at No.23, though her form leading into The Championships had not been particularly promising. She had not reached the final of any of the six tournaments she had played since winning the title in Memphis on her comeback, had lost to Jelena Jankovic in the third round of the French Open and had not played in any warm-up tournaments on grass.
Williams’ opening 2-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory at The Championships over Russia’s Alla Kudryavtseva, the world No.59, hardly inspired confidence. “The first set went so fast and my balls were just flying out and I didn’t have any answers,” Williams said afterwards. “That really bothered me.”
However, Williams’ mother and sister Serena were courtside to give strong vocal support, which proved crucial. Williams said: “They were like: ‘You can do it.’ Just to hang in there and not focus on what went wrong. Just focus on the future. So it was definitely key I think for my win.”
Williams thought that a lack of matches in previous weeks had been a problem but added: “I think being able to hit a lot of balls in some pressure situations will definitely help me in the coming rounds.”
Hana Sromova, the world No.170, took only four games off Williams in the second round, but in the third the American struggled again. Williams faced 23 break points and hit 14 double faults before beating Japan’s Akiko Morigami 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. Having trailed 5-3 in the final set and gone within two points of defeat, Williams said afterwards: “I’m a tough competitor and a huge fighter. In my experience, I just always feel like it should go my way.”
From that moment onwards, however, Williams was all but unstoppable. In the fourth round she crushed Sharapova 6-1, 6-3 as the No.2 seed struggled with a shoulder problem and in the quarter-finals she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-4.
After a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Ana Ivanovic in the semi-finals, Williams was asked in her press conference about the prospect of facing Justine Henin, the world No 1 and French Open champion, in the final. At that very moment the Belgian was apparently coasting to victory over Bartoli but went on to lose in three sets in one of the biggest shocks in the history of The Championships.
Williams was the overwhelming favourite to win the final and did so in convincing fashion, beating Bartoli 6-4, 6-1. At the end of a tight first set Bartoli double-faulted twice when serving at 4-5 and Williams went on to win seven of the last eight games.
Asked how she had turned her form around given her struggles at the start of The Championships, Williams said: “I think it’s just all about doing the right things at the right time, obviously believing in myself. I always believe in myself. I feel like no matter who I play, I have the advantage.”
Twelve months later Williams returned, still ranked only No.7 in the world, to claim her fifth Wimbledon singles title, this time without dropping a set. She has not won a Grand Slam singles title since, but after her achievements this year in finishing runner-up at both the Australian Open and The Championships it would surely be foolish to write off her chances of adding to her tally.