Venus Williams probably shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing. But 23 years after she turned professional and 16 years after she won her second of two U.S. Opens, Williams enters this year’s Open with a chance to win. Really.
She’s on the cusp of another chance at greatness, although certainly on the cusp of being an aunt. Sister Serena is about to give birth to her first child, and consequently isn’t at this year’s Open, which gives Venus and everyone else in the women’s field that much more of a chance.
But just think. How many players at the athletically advanced age of 37 have ever been able to do what Venus has done, especially while battling the energy-sapping condition of Sjogren’s Syndrome for the past six years. Williams made the final of this year’s Australian Open, losing to her sister in Serena’s last tournament before announcing her pregnancy in February and taking the rest of the season off.
Then Williams made the final at Wimbledon, losing to Garbine Muguruza. Williams hasn’t won a tournament this year, but she’s holding on to the No. 9 world ranking as she steps into the National Tennis Center this week, where she finished runner-up to Martina Hingis in her first U.S. Open in 1997.
Muguruza, who won the French Open in 2016 over Serena, was now facing another idol on Centre Court at Wimbledon. She won in two sets, denying Williams an eighth Grand Slam title.
“You know, she won five times, so she knows how to play,” Muguruza said then. “For me was a challenge to have her, growing up watching her play. Everybody start laughing. But, in fact, is something incredible. I don’t know, I was so excited to go out there and win, especially over somebody like a role model.”
After all this time, Williams still comes to the court every day professing that playing the game is central to her life.
“Tennis is still the love of my life,” said Williams after her Wimbledon final loss. “You know, it gives me joy. That’s what I can say.”
As for still playing competitive tennis at 37 and not pursuing some other pathway of life, she has one thought about that.
“I believe that those are not my thoughts or words, that I’m not supposed to be doing this,” she said at the Cincinnati tournament a couple of weeks ago. “I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”
She never has made any excuses about her Sjogren’s, an autoimmune condition she will be living with for the rest of her life.
“As professional athletes, if we decide to walk on the court, it doesn’t matter what you’re dealing with, you need to get out there and hold your head high and compete,” she says with her characteristic understated pride. “And if you’re not prepared, do your best to prepare again. So that’s what I do.”
Williams has had the additional heavy burden of dealing with a tragic auto accident June 9 in which her car and another collided at an intersection near her Florida home. A passenger in the other car, Jerome Barson, eventually died from his injuries. In a Wimbledon news conference after the death, Williams broke into tears when questioned about it, but could not comment about the ongoing investigation and lawsuit initiated by the dead man’s family.
Without Serena at the Open, Venus emerges from her sister’s broad shadow and is now the Williams to beat. She has drawn qualifier Viktoria Kuzmova in the first round.
Former champions and television commentators John McEnroe and Chris Evert are continually struck by Venus’ dignity during the decade that her sister became the sport’s dominant player and won 23 Grand Slams titles.
“I think the best thing that ever happened to Serena Williams was Venus Williams,” McEnroe said this week. “But that is a remarkable quality. That’s very difficult to be able to handle that, and she’s done that remarkably well, and allowed Serena to do her thing and to become the best player that ever played and be in the back seat, as great a player as Venus was. That to me has been a quality that’s kept them close and allowed Serena to reach her potential.”
For Evert, Venus’ dignity has been the pinnacle of her success.
“She doesn’t have a big ego, and all great tennis players have a big ego,” Evert said. “I don’t care if anybody denies that; they are wrong. For her, that ego must have been bruised so many times but she just handled it with so much grace. I admire her so much more for that than for all her accomplishments in tennis.”
And here’s the thing. At 37, Venus Williams still has a chance to accomplish more.