April 10, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – First things first.

Venus Williams can play as long as she wants. As long as tournaments are willing to give her wild cards. As long as she’s willing to do battle.

But here’s the dilemma: at nearly 44, and coming off yet another injury that’s taken her off the court for yet another extended period, the Venus who’s out there is not the one the fans remember. Nor is it the one she herself wants to be.

That much was fairly evident even on the practice court with a hitting partner Tuesday.

When the call was in her area code, the power remains. But put it out of reach a little, and it becomes very challenging.

(UPDATE: Williams got on court Wedneday night against Nao Hibino. But they only managed to play two games before rain washed out play for the night. They’ll pick it up Thursday in the early afternoon).

The other noticeable issue is that the hitches in her groundstrokes are more pronounced than ever. And with the speed of the ball coming, she’s late hitting it because of those hitches. Everything is just that little bit slower, because of Father Time and also because of how little tennis she has played.

You could see her shake her head and get discouraged at times on Wednesday. And it was hard not to get discouraged with her.

As with most champion athletes, she set a bar for herself with her early success that is a challenge to live up to in one’s 30s – never mind one’s 40s.

Here’s what she looked like.

There are plenty of reasons for Williams to play when her body allows. The first one is that the competitive jones never really leaves a professional athlete. And playing their sport is the only way to sate it.

The other is that Williams has a post-career brand to build that remains very much dependant on her image as a professional tennis player. She has a clothing line that needs selling. A tennis career is relatively short compared to other jobs – even for someone like Williams who remains in the game into her 40s. But she’ll have plenty of life to lead when indeed it does end.

Not winning matches, not moving

The competitive desire seems as strong as ever. The problem is that Williams just … can’t move.

Especially to the outer edges of the court, which is where her opponents will most want to put her.

The last time Williams put together back-to-back wins goes back nearly five years, to the Cincinnati tournament where she made the quarterfinals.

Williams was back near the top 50 with that effort. The rest of the season through to the pandemic stoppage in March 2020, she went 2-7. When play resumed, she went 1-5.

In 2022, she went 2-12. In 2013, after playing in Auckland, she pulled out the Australian Open and didn’t return until just before Wimbledon, and went 2-6 the rest of that year.

Now, in her first tournament since losing 6-1, 6-1 to Greet Minnen in the first round of that 2023 US Open, she faces a Japanese player who is going to make her hit a lot of balls in Nao Hibino.

.

You know she’ll give it everything she has. You know she wants it as much as she ever did. Or she would not be out there, you would think.

As poignant as it is to watch a diminished Venus, it’s likely exponentially harder to BE a diminished Venus.

There’s something compelling about this final lap in her career, though. There might be that last, great match left in her. And you want to be there to see it when it happens.

But, most of all, it’s where SHE wants to be.

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