Before they heard the roaring crowds, before they worried about endorsement deals or news conferences, they were just two little girls playing tennis on the hot, hard courts of Southern California.
Venus Williams was already 10 years old by the time Alexandra Stevenson turned 9, so Williams usually won their matches -- she was taller than Stevenson even then, as she likes to remind people. They talked about toys and television shows and of course about tennis, discussing how they were each going to win at the Grand Slams one day. That was nine years ago, but today those youthful conversations took on new meaning as both women advanced to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon on a surprisingly dry day at the All England club.
"We always played the juniors together when we were so little and so much has happened since then," Williams said. "It's like one of those dreams that doesn't happen very often."
Williams, now 19, and Stevenson, 18, will only play each other here if both make the final. While that is unlikely, each certainly showed plenty of determination today with three-set, come-from-behind victories. Williams lost the first set to Anna Kournikova before storming back with overpowering shots to take a decisive 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory in front of a rowdy crowd with a disproportionate number of teenage boys. Stevenson had less of a gallery, but she still managed to save one match point against fellow American Lisa Raymond on her way to a 2-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-1 win.
Their victories were just two results of a tidal wave of matches held under the first calm skies to grace the grounds in three days. After being penned into the locker rooms and lounges when play was rained out late Monday afternoon and all day Tuesday, the players poured onto the courts in a mad rush, leaving spectators wishing they could be in more than one place at a time.
If they looked to the left, they could see No. 8 seed Todd Martin defeating last year's finalist, No. 10 seed Goran Ivanisevic, 7-6 (5-3), 6-3, 6-4. To the right, there was No. 7 seed Mark Philippoussis dispatching No. 9 seed Greg Rusedski, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-1. Steffi Graf took just eight minutes to finish off her rain-delayed match, beating Belgium's Kim Clijsters, 6-4, 6-2, while Pete Sampras made quick work of Daniel Nestor, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
Still, the biggest attractions remained on Centre Court, where British favorite Tim Henman finally closed out a marathon 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7 (7-5), 9-7 win over Jim Courier, and No. 2 seed Patrick Rafter finally ended Boris Becker's surprisingly successful farewell tour. The 31-year-old Becker, who will retire next month, never really threatened Rafter in the 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 loss, but he still managed to capture the hearts of a crowd that gave him several ovations.
Already on their feet as the players walked toward the exit tunnel, the fans seemed to stretch themselves even further by raising their clapping hands toward the sky when Becker dropped his bag and turned back toward the court to face them. The man who won three titles here and appeared in the final four other times then started clapping himself, thanking the people who had helped him celebrate the greatest moments of his career.
"It was a great love affair, to tell you the truth," Becker said. "It was like nowhere else in the world.
"Obviously this place is very special to me; it made me who I am today and gave me all the possibilities, all the freedom to do what I wanted to do with my life. . . . But it's time to move on. I have no regrets. I couldn't believe the way I've been playing the last 10 days here."
Becker first won Wimbledon at the age of 17, an accomplishment Stevenson has said she would like to duplicate by the age of 19. But before she can even think about reaching the finals here she must get by fellow qualifier Australian Jelena Dokic in the quarterfinals. Their match ensures that a qualifier will reach the women's semifinals at Wimbledon for the first time, and as the world's 86th-ranked player, Stevenson will technically be the favorite. The 129th-ranked Dokic has already taken out Martina Hingis and Mary Pierce here, however, showing remarkable determination under pressure.
Williams is backing her old friend, saying it would be "super" if she could meet Stevenson in the finals, although Williams has a tough road of her own here. She will next face Graf, who has been on a roll since winning the French Open earlier this month. After the match today, Kournikova picked Graf to win in the quarterfinals, but Williams has other ideas.
"I have never been to the semifinals here and she has won it seven times, so I think this time I will take something for myself," Williams said. "I won the last two matchups between us and she won the first two, so it will be interesting. I am definitely ready to compete."
When: Through Sunday.
Where: All England club, Wimbledon.
Defending champions: Pete Sampras, Jana Novotna.
Top seeds: Sampras, Martina Hingis.
Today's TV: 1 p.m., WRC-4, WBAL-11; 5 p.m., HBO.
Yesterday's Results: Men -- Sampras (1), United States, def. Daniel Nestor, Canada, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2; Pat Rafter (2), Australia, def. Boris Becker, Germany, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3; Tim Henman (6), Britain, def. Jim Courier, United States, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7 (7-5), 9-7; Mark Philippoussis (7), Australia, def. Greg Rusedski (9), Britain, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-1; Todd Martin (8), United States, def. Goran Ivanisevic (10), Croatia, 7-6 (7-3),
6-3, 6-4. Women -- Steffi Graf (2), Germany, def. Kim Clijsters, Belgium, 6-2, 6-2; Venus Williams (6), United States, def. Anna Kournikova (17), Russia, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2; Nathalie Tauziat (8), France, def. Dominique Van Roost (15), Belgium, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3; Alexandra Stevenson, United States, def. Lisa Raymond, United States, 2-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-1.
Today's featured matches: Men -- Sampras vs. Mark Philippoussis (7), Australia; Todd Martin (8), United States, vs. Patrick Rafter (2), Australia; Gustavo Kuerten (11), Brazil, vs. Andre Agassi (4), United States; Cedric Pioline, France, vs. Tim Henman (6), Britain. Women -- Lindsay Davenport (3), United States, vs. Novotna (5), Czech Republic; Venus Williams (6), United States, vs. Steffi Graf (2), Germany; Jelena Dokic, Australia, vs. Alexandra Stevenson, United States.
CAPTION: Venus Williams coasts to a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Anna Kournikova and into a semifinal date against Steffi Graf.
CAPTION: Boris Becker acknowledges the applause of the crowd after what he says is his final appearance at Wimbledon -- a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 loss to Patrick Rafter.