MELBOURNE – If happy endings are your thing, sports can be a tough proposition. Athletes can age with grace. They can swap youth for experience. But seldom do they author perfect final chapters. Like timing a financial market, most get out either too early or too late. Never mind the cliché “going out on top.” Going out with dignity intact can be an achievement. It's particularly tough in tennis. It’s a binary proposition.
Venus Williams has won seven majors titles over the course of her career; but the last one came almost nine years ago. She’s watched as her little sister tripled her tally of Slams. She’s spent most of the last decade negotiating illness and injury and what she calls “nags and nicks.” Time does not get star struck.
The oldest player in the entire 2017 Australian Open women’s draw, Venus turns 37 in June. Still, she continues to work on her story, resisting the end. In her first match, she played Kateryna Kozlova, who was born around the time Venus turned pro. There were times this afternoon when Venus looked like the Hall of Famer she is, clubbing the ball and uncorking aces. Other times she looked like a player closer to 40 than to 30, missing her marks, sometimes by considerable margins. In the end she won in straight sets 7-6(5), 7-5, smoking a forehand and then, immediately, pumping a fist and offering a pirouette.
A classic? Not by any stretch. For much of the match she was “patchy,” as they said in tennis locution. Is she a threat to win this tournament? Unlikely. Her draw is favorable; her aching right arm is not. As the 13th seed, her simply reaching the second would mark an achievement.
But Venus has reconciled it all. She still enjoys going to work. She still finds fulfillment—whether it’s those moments that recall her play at the peak of her powers, or it's the simply the surge that comes with competition. She’s made a determination that there are measures of success beyond trophies. That she has been blessed with, literally, one-in-a-billion talent, so why not continue? Why is she still grinding it out? Her tacit response: why not?
She adds this to her legacy. By accident or design, she has come with a graceful exit strategy for others. If she never wins another title, she’s still going out on top.
Five thoughts on Monday afternoon
• Simona Halep remains a mystery, wrapped inside an enigma wrapped with protective tape. The fourth seed fell in straight sets to Shelby Rogers, pride of Charleston, S.C.
• Angie Kerber starts her title defense on Monday night against Lesia Tsurenko, not the easiest first match. Short of crashing out early while Serena wins the title, Kerber will likely hold her top ranking. If so, her 22 weeks (and counting) at No. 1 will vault her past Maria Sharapova and Tracy Austin who were both No. 1 for 21 weeks.
• Kei Nishikori, last player to beat Andy Murray in a Slam, had some rough moments but won still another five-setter, outlasting Andrey Kuznetsov.
• Madison Brengle scored the biggest win of her career when she took out Serena Williams in Auckland. She was less successful on Monday, falling in straight sets to Alison Riske.
• The good news for Elise Mertens: she qualifies and wins the Hobart event. The less good news: she missed the Aussie Open qualifying and is not in the main draw.
It seems to me the question on most fans’ minds for this tournament is simple: Can Serena, Federer, or Nadal win? Everything else is secondary. I guess you answered it in your seed reports, picking Djokovic and Pliskova. But of those three, who do you give the best chance?
• CAN any of those three win? Of course. Double-digit major winners are always contenders. For a variety of reasons, I don’t see it happening in any of the three cases. But we’ll see. Serena, of course, can summon her best tennis with no momentum. It's happened innumerable times. It’s happened here. But between/among her age, her body and her long layoff in the fall, I’m just not sure she’ll be there these next two weeks. Nadal, too, comes in with considerable rust; as well as some confidence dents after 2016. Ironically, Federer, the oldest of the bunch, might well fare best. But if he fails to get to the semis, he’ll fall to at least No. 25.
Great podcast with Martina Navratilova. I was particularly struck by your discussion surrounding the difficulty so many WTA players have in finding and meshing with a coach. Certainly, as you two noted, this could be driven by some residual trepidation or distrust a player might feel about working with someone who had previously coached another player on tour. But buried in your conversation with Martina was also a comment from her about female players being “more emotional” and their propensity to “[internalize] things,” which would ostensibly exacerbate these tricky player-coach dynamics. Do you agree with Martina about female players being more sensitive than their male counterparts in their approach to tennis and their careers? And isn’t this just a variation of Djokovic’s comments about female players having the misfortune of contending with “hormones”? I know these kinds of discussion are a potential minefield to tread, but it’s 2017! Trump is going to be president so let’s throw caution to the wind!
• Beep! Beep! Beep! Hear that? I’m in reverse gear, backing the hell away from that one. Let’s dwell on the other point instead: With all the turnover in the coaching ranks, I do think it’s interesting to ponder the other point: how much and how little a player should reveal to a coach, given that he (and the majority are male) could soon work for an opponent?
Is it wrong for me to be smirking over the fact that during the Australian Open, I won't have to mute my TV because Sharapova and Azarenka are screeching and hollering for apparently no reason at all? Maybe Azarenka got it all out when she gave birth. Am I the only one enjoying hearing the sound of the ball coming off the racket?
—Brian in Zurich
• My stance on grunting was always this: didn’t bother me. Didn’t see it as one of the more pressing issues. But I didn’t appreciate just how many fans it alienated. As it is written: “less grunting, more one handed backhands, please.”
So, WTHIGO with the Tennis Channel losing the rights to WTA tennis? I have been pleasantly surprised to find most of the Oceana tennis tournaments being broadcast on the BEIN channel here in Philly. In one of the tournaments the scroll at the bottom announces BEIN was the home of WTA tennis in 2017. How does the Tennis Channel, whose one job it is to air tennis matches, lose all (most?) of the WTA matches this year? BEIN has also been airing some of the men’s matches as well. Not that I’m complaining as BEIN is included in my basic package, but it seems strange.
• We’ve had a lot of questions about the WTA rights and difficulty of finding coverage. Ben Rothenberg addressed the issue here. Bottom line: the WTA made a long-term move that holding onto rights was going to be more valuable. They should be judged in the long-term. But suffice to say the short-term execution is lacking. And visibility is too important (and consumers’ options are too abundant) too hide your product like this.
I just watched your Tennis Channel presentation about Petra Kvitova, in your latest Mailbag. You are the first Western journalist I had heard pronounce her name without an "a" between the "K" and the "v". Hooray! I suspect you took my suggestion from a year ago and asked Petra how she pronounces it.
—Jim Yrkoski, Silver Creek, Neb.
• Let this be a plug for the WTA and ATP website pronunciation feature whereby players say their own names.
• E. Wong, San Luis Obispo, Calif., has LLS: Looking forward to a great tennis season in 2017! Has anyone in the Mailbag suggested long lost siblings Eugenie Bouchard and Emily Bett Rickards (also Canadian btw!) From TV's Arrow fame?