Wednesday August 1st, 2012

Venus Williams played more like her old self in her loss at the Olympics to Angelique Kerber. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

One of the under-the-radar storylines surrounding the London Olympics is how differently the men's and women's tennis tours will look after they're done and gone. This has been a special year in tennis, with a schedule that has been compacted and reshuffled to accommodate the Olympics, an event that has historically been ignored by the game's best, but has in recent years been elevated to the level of "a fifth Slam." It has brought some players, like Kim Clijsters, out of retirement, and forced others, like Venus Williams and Lleyton Hewitt, to accelerate their injury rehabilitation in order to take part in the Olympic experience.

For Williams and Hewitt, their singles campaigns ended Wednesday at the hands of younger opponents, Angelique Kerber and Novak Djokovic, respectively, but not before both thirty-somethings turned back the clock. Their performances reminded us all why they're back, why there still might be a little magic left and why it's still unclear whether we'll see it again.

It was a tall task for Williams to draw Kerber, the most improved and arguably the hottest player on the WTA over the last year. Despite losing 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) in the third round, Williams accomplished something she hasn't convincingly done since her comeback: She played like a woman who wasn't encumbered by an autoimmune disease, fighting her body and fatigue just to survive matches. In most of her matches over the last few months, she's looked heavy-legged, out of sync and otherwise outclassed by the top players.

But against Kerber, Venus didn't have to rely on an opponent having a bad day, nor did she look unsure of herself or her game. It was a hard-fought match in which Williams led 5-1 in the first-set tiebreaker, only to get nervous and see Kerber win the next six points to take it. Williams jumped to a 2-0 lead in the second set and had break points to go up 4-1, but Kerber's consistency and mettle -- forged during a career year that has elevated her to No. 7 and made her the top-ranked German -- got her back to 3-3 and on the way to another tiebreaker. Once there, Kerber took advantage of two double faults from Williams.

Venus is still learning to manage her illness, and no single match or performance will wipe that away. But at least for two hours out on Court 2, you could be forgiven for just wanting to focus on the tennis as opposed to all the other stuff, the stuff that almost kept Williams from participating in her fourth straight Olympics. That's as much a credit to her game as anything else.

Credit Hewitt, too, for his effort in a three-set loss. With Hewitt trailing Djokovic in the third set, Bravo analyst Justin Gimelstob said the 31-year-old Aussie had a "borderline delusional belief in still being able to compete at the highest level." Let's not forget the fact that Hewitt had taken the first set and pushed Djokovic in the second set before the Serb raised his level and ran away in the third to complete a 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 victory. Given that performance, I would argue that Hewitt isn't delusional at all -- if you can push the best players in the world and come within points of winning, you can compete at the highest level.

Similarly, after her loss to Kerber, the 32-year-old Williams told SI.com's Jon Wertheim that she had every intention of playing the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Borderline delusional? Actually delusional? I'll let others take up that debate. However, I've never met a successful athlete who didn't at least owe a part of his or her success to a healthy dose of self-deception. Rafael Nadal truly believes he can be beaten on any given day by any given player. Serena Williams believes that if she's playing well, she can't be beaten on any given day by any given player. Players take the court thinking they can win matches on one leg or with a bum shoulder. They may be crazy and delusional, but here's the thing: Sometimes they're right.

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