Fourth of July brings out finest in athletics

Jul 5, 2005 1:12 AM

I hope you enjoyed the Fourth of July weekend as much as I did, starting with the all-American final of Venus Williams and Lindsey Davenport at Wimbledon.

The colonists put on a great show for the motherland, and Venus was back in orbit.

The knockers’ bench was in full cry before she dispatched Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, and the din didn’t let up before she took on Davenport.

One columnist wrote that she "arrived looking like something between an oddly dressed teenager and a sinfully rich rock star.

She wore a tight banana-yellow T-shirt, a white woolen cap, a set of purple, jangling earrings and a huge ring of multiple diamonds so ostentatious it made one momentarily pause to wonder which Super Bowl champion she played for."

Regardless of what she wore, she also had on her patented Venus cloak of calm and confidence.

Before her first big serve in the final, she said, "I don’t leave it up to the next person to believe in me, because no matter how much the next person believes in me or doesn’t believe in me or says I’m not going to do it or whatever it is, they can’t walk in my shoes. They can’t breathe the air I breathe. They can’t live inside my head."

The air she breathed against Davenport was rarified. They played one 25-shot exchange in the third set that was the longest point in the history of Wimbledon, and Venus won after facing match point.

The victory picture told it all, with the champ holding her head in ecstatic disbelief that she had pulled it off at Wimbledon, this time against odds, for the third time.

The last few years have not been easy ones for Venus. She had won only one tournament in the last year, had not won a Grand Slam tournament in almost four years, and had been written off by some as spoiled by success and fame and, most of all, fortune.

So she said, not surprisingly, that the victory had special meaning, because she wasn’t supposed to win.

Maybe not, but this was the Venus Williams of old, big and bold and battering, and even Davenport acknowledged that when she said, "Every time the chips were down for Venus, she played unbelievable."

It is always satisfying to see a champ get up off the floor to win, and it is clear we have not seen the last of Venus — or Serena if she ever gets healthy — at the forefront of women’s tennis. Leaving the big, blonde, Russian contingent grass-stained and beaten at Wimbledon made it a Yankee Fourth of July.

Things were just as good across the Channel, where Lance Armstrong started strong in his bid for an unprecedented seventh straight Tour de France.

The enormity of that accomplishment, if the iron-willed Armstrong can pull it off over the 2,242 miles of grinding strain and stress, will be a fitting close to the career of one of the world’s most remarkable athletes.

Almost as satisfying as the American showings in England and France over the Fourth was the triumphant return to his homeland for Manu Ginobili.

He returned to Argentina for a basketball camp for kids, the aptly-named Basketball Without Borders program that also will be held later this month in Beijing, China, and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Girobili told the 57 kids in the camp that borders no longer meant anything in the sport, and underlining his point was the presence at the three-day training camp of two other Argentines who play in the NBA, Carlos Delfinos of the Detroit Pistons and Andres Nocioni of the Chicago Bulls.

Girobili generated the greatest sports outpouring in 19 years in Argentina, reminiscent of the triumphant return of Diego Maradona after that brilliant star led the country’s soccer team to a World Cup in 1986.

Like Maradona, Girobili was greeted in the Pink House, Argentina’s version of the White House, where the current president Nestor Kirchner gave him a hero’s greeting.

Manu may not have won the Most Valuable Player trophy for leading the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA championship, but having your national president hand you gold more than makes up for president David Stern handing NBA silver to Tim Duncan.