By Giri Nathan
If you’d assumed that Venus Williams had already retired, you could be forgiven. The 43-year-old eminence hasn’t been touring much, as reflected in her world No. 697 ranking, but she has yet to formally hang up the racquets like her little sister did last year. She makes occasional appearances on court, in between injuries and (I imagine) the manifold joys and obligations of Being Venus Williams.
Those appearances have gotten sparser as of late. She won three singles matches in 2021, and none in 2022. This season is her 30th(!) on the professional tour. It opened auspiciously, with Williams winning her first match of 2023 in Auckland, but in the very next match she suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined her for six months. She returned to competition just in time for grass, which has always been the best backdrop for her willowy, deadly tennis. At ‘s-Hertogenbosch last week, she lost to the 17-year-old Celine Naef, who has now earned the right to say that she notched her first tour-level win against Venus Williams.
With that context, it was surprising to see Venus play a pair of enthralling three-setters this week. This storyline feels familiar lately: Aging great delights tennis fans with unexpectedly spirited late-career performance. Maybe this is because tennis is in a transitional phase. Its household names have managed, through a blend of modern medicine and maniacal devotion, to keep pushing past their supposed expiration dates, to smuggle vintage performances into their late years, and fans haven’t yet updated their age-curve expectations. I remember how big a deal it was when Andre Agassi basically self-immolated to take down Marcos Baghdatis at his terminal 2006 US Open. Agassi was just 36 then! If that were happening right now, someone might be complaining that he came into the tournament unseeded. These days we’ve got Serena Williams lighting it up at her final US Open mere weeks before her 40th birthday and Andy Murray toiling away in unforgettable five-setters on a metal hip at age 36. (To say nothing of Novak Djokovic regularly dismantling twentysomethings to advance the men’s major title record at age 36.) The geriatric thrill is such a fixture of tennis now that I’ll almost be disappointed if the present cohort of stars doesn’t deliver the same someday. The standard will be even higher by then, of course. If you don’t see a bald, 54-year-old, somehow even slenderer Daniil Medvedev returning serve from 12 feet behind the baseline, consider yourself robbed.
But back to Venus, because nobody was cooler this week. In her first round at Birmingham on Tuesday, she faced Camila Giorgi—a fellow veteran, though one in much better form, with a No. 48 ranking, a recent 250-level title, and a sustained commitment to executing every tennis ball. The contest did not start well for Venus, who tweaked her knee in just the fourth game, needed a medical timeout to get it wrapped, and took an alarming fall in the seventh game. Still, after three hours and 17 minutes, Williams had outgunned the powerful Giorgi for a 7–6(5), 4–6, 7–6(6) win. Per the department of satisfying numbers, this was also the 100th grass-court victory of Venus’ career. One quote sums up the charmed scene: “When I was on court, I was reminded of things that I used to do that worked really well. I experienced a lot of déjà vu moments when I was out there where I’d think to myself, ‘Oh, yeah! I remember that. This works!’ I’ve never had that experience before in my life.”
In a second-round match against Jelena Ostapenko on Thursday, Venus threatened to do the miraculous once again. (If you’re in the business of engineering miraculous comebacks, it really helps to have ’Penko as a collaborator.) Williams faced a match point while serving down 3–5 in the second set but gutted through that four-deuce game. That itself was impressive. To reel off three more games, absconding with the set, was preposterous. This streak continued into the third, where Williams broke immediately for a 2–0 lead, before Ostapenko stabilized to win 6–3, 5–7, 6–3. Judging by the crowd response this week, nobody was disappointed with any element of the Venus Show. Even with a bum knee, she delivered lovely homages to the spot serving and slick shotmaking that won her five Wimbledon titles. Right on cue, she was awarded a wild card into the main draw at the grass-court major, where she will make her 24th career appearance, extending her legend a little further still.
Above: “Going in one more round when you don’t think you can—that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” — Rocky Balboa (Getty)