That premeditated act of conceiving two daughters with the express purpose of making them tennis stars? That worked out pretty well. So did the plan to raise them to be strong and independent and brimming with confidence. But Richard and Oracene Williams didn't get everything right. For one thing, they mixed up their daughters’ names.
Serena should have been the one with the planetary appellation. She has her own force field. She has a unique gravitational pull. Often, she eclipses. Plenty of bodies revolve around her.
Venus, on the hand, could scarcely be serener.
The beaded dynamo who rocked tennis in the 90s gave way to a subdued and measured champion. It was around this time that the world stopped conflating the sisters. While Serena was all drama and action -- dizzying highs, confounding lows, alternating moods and little predictability to it all -- Venus was all ballast. No tantrums, no controversy, no soap opera. She even disliked using the replay challenge system to contest a bad line.
After running to keep pace with her little sister, Venus could no longer catch up. Venus has seven Grand Slams to her name; that haul would soon be exceeded and then doubled by Serena. And Venus never expressed anything less than full-throated support.
And along the way something funny happened: She kept playing tennis. The star who practically birthed the phrase “outside interests” -- the autodidact on the guitar; the student of design and fashion -- ended up sticking with her “inside interest,” smacking around a yellow felt ball. It’s been six years since Venus won her last major and -- get this -- 13 years since she won a major other than Wimbledon (the U.S. Open in 2001). And still, at age 34, Venus remains part of the tennis workforce.
It’s not because she loves the culture -- she’s divorced from it. The other day, Venus claimed not to have known that Andy Murray had hired Amelie Mauresmo as coach, which is akin to a soccer playing failing to have heard about Luis Suarez’s propensity for midgame snacking. Venus reliably denies knowing the identity of her next opponent. A WTA veteran deep into her 20s who has won more than 200 WTA matches and played Venus multiple times asserts, “I honestly don't think she knows who I am.”
It’s the competition, the exercise in self-improvement, that’s so irresistibly enticing. Just the other day, Venus said, "I'm not looking for anyone to believe in me or anything like that. You have to believe in yourself these days. I have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to lose. So for me it's about continually playing better and getting back up every single time when things might not go my way.”
Today it went Venus’ way for the first hour. Playing Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champ, on Centre Court, Venus looked the part of a five-time champion. She served well, moved well and was loyal to her game plan of attacking the net liberally. She took advantage of a nervous game from Kvitova, scored the only break of serve and took the first set 7-5.
The battle persisted for two more hours. Neither player broke serve in the second set. In a tiebreaker, Venus hit two shots she wished she could take back Snapchat style, and lost the breaker 7-2 to even the match at one set-all. In the third set, the battle persisted. Finally at 5-6, Venus blinked. A few of her backhands missed by a few inches -- such are the margins in this sport -- and Kvitova picked a hell of a time to break serve for the first time all day, winning perhaps the best match of the tournament so far, 5-7, 7-6, 7-5.
Venus could claim to have been the moral victor. Beset by Sjögren’s syndrome, a little-known autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and joint pain, she had to be pleased, hanging with the sixth seed -- a decade her junior -- for more than two-and-a-half hours. She’ll pick up some ranking points, enabling her to improve on her current No. 31 rank. And she’s still in the doubles tournament with her sister.
It also suggested that, if this were her last at Wimbledon, there are worse ways to go out. But Venus was having none of it.
“People have been trying to retire me since I was like 25," Venus said. "For some reason in tennis we always do that to our players. It's weird. We don't encourage them to stick around. It's like, Get out of here. So I'm not getting out of here. I think this year has been a great year for me. I've had some tough losses, but I've learned a lot from them. I'm finding my way back on my feet. I'm proud of myself for what I'm achieving on the court.”
On she goes…
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Six Thoughts from Friday:
• Speaking of former champions in their mid-30s who retain a taste for battle… Lleyton Hewitt fought intensely (redundant) in his 42nd five-set match at a Grand Slam, a record. He came up short, though, falling to Jerzy Janowicz and prompting speculation that end is near. Hewitt, though, combatively wasn’t tipping his hand: “Yeah, I know when I play my best tennis, I can still go out there and push guys, especially on this kind of surface over five sets.”
• In our first significant upset of the tournament, Li Na -- thoroughly, mystifyingly lacking in self belief -- lost a pair of tiebreakers, falling to Barbora Zahlavova Strycova of the Czech Republic, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5). After winning the Australian Open in January, Na has regressed, playing passively, failing to take chances even on sitting ducks and displaying the most defeatist body language this side of Andy Murray. At least she admitted it. “In important moments, I don't know how to hit the ball.”
• Novak Djokovic was cruising to a clinical third-round win over Gilles Simon when he took a nasty spill on the court. After some tense moments, he recovered to win the match. The good news: because there is no play on the middle Sunday, he now has 72 hours to recover.
• In a match that very well may be a latter-round match-up in the future, Grigor Dimitrov came back from a two-sets-to-one deficit to beat Alexandr Dolgopolov in five sets. He’s looking more and more like a future Grand Slam winner.
• Sometimes the script-writers get it right. Returning to the region of He Who Shall Not Be Named, Caroline Wozniacki won again, reaching the fourth round without dropping a set. Today’s victim was teenager Ana Konjuh of Croatia. Next up for Wozniacki is a highly winnable match against Zahlavova Strycova, who beat Li.