The Australian Open is candy for the insomnia and drunk crowd, both of which I happen to be a member. I guess it has the same charm as New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom. Not only is it a must-see event, but you know that only the truly die-hard fans are watching along with you... or the truly lost. And those two circles can intersect pretty heavily — genius and insanity and all that. It’s a great event for tennis fans too, because it’s generally the only Grand Slam that the players come into completely healthy. They’ve had six weeks to two months off from the previous season, and have only played a tune-up event or two, if that, before the tournament. The rest of the calendar sees a host of players carrying nagging ailments from the weeks and weeks of play and training, and you don’t always get everyone at full-strength. By the time the US Open rolls around in late August it can look like a lunch break on the set of The Walking Dead.
Of course, that’s not always the case, especially this year. Players have had an unusual run-up to this event, with Australia’s COVID protocols, and some had to spend a full two weeks in a hotel room. Which would be the antithesis of the highly-tuned training schedule and bodies these athletes carry for the entire tour and their entire careers.
Venus Williams was no different, though she may just be carrying the nagging aches and pains that anyone who’s, y’know, 40 carries. Much less someone who is 40 and has been on tour full-time for 24 years, a good portion of which has been playing and training on concrete. She came into the Aussie Open with her left knee barking. It’s a wonder her back isn’t graham crackers, considering.
Venus hasn’t been a real threat in a while, though it’s important to remember she was in two Grand Slam finals in 2017, which was only four years ago, and she did that at age 37. Only two other women have made Finals at 37, and those are Serena and Martina Navratilova, perhaps the two greatest players of all-time. That’s the company Venus keeps, though it’s forgotten a little too often.
“Venus has been lost in the light of her younger sister Serena for even longer, as Serena, with 23 grand slam titles to her name, remains on the cusp of tying and breaking Margaret Court’s record for most grand slam wins. (Being the younger sibling of two, I’m tempted to say that the younger one is always the superior one, but I’ve gotten enough typewriters and noogies by saying that in my lifetime to tempt fate once again).
So occasionally we have to remind ourselves that Venus is also one of the greatest players of all-time. She’s second among active players, to her sister, in Grand Slam titles, with seven. She’s 10th all-time in Final appearances, 10th all-time in Grand Slam semifinals as well. She’s fifth in Grand Slam match wins, and also collected 49 singles titles in total. Basically, every tennis player ever save a handful would drink a warehouse full of cow’s blood to have the career Venus has had to this point.
“To this point” is key there, because she’s still going. And that’s been the thing about Venus for the past few years. She shows up. She’s got the most Grand Slam appearances of anyone in history, with 87. In the 24 years she’s been playing, she’s missed a total of seven Grand Slams. That’s one every three years. She gets to the post.
Last night was a testament to that. Carrying that knee problem, and down 1-5 in the 1st set to Sara Errani and serving to stay in the set, Venus did this to her right ankle. It was immediately obvious that this wasn’t just some little turn or sprain. Williams fought back tears as she hobbled around and through back-to-back medical timeouts. Every commentator was positive that she would retire, that she should (and maybe she should have, she could have easily ended her career). She was down 5-1, couldn’t move, and the days of her making serious inroads in a Grand Slam are probably over. What does she have to prove? Why gut out this pain to likely lose, and even if somehow finding a way through this one, how would she get through the next match? No one would have batted an eye if she had called the match then and there.
But Venus Williams gets there. She is there. That’s her strength. She’s there because there’s a match to be played, and that’s what she does.
So she gutted out the next set, even looked a little spritely at times, and even fought off two match points even when there was no hope of a comeback. Sometimes the value is in just putting up a fight, playing one or two points really well. She validated Errani’s win by sticking it out, by competing to the very end. She gave Errani a victory, not a pass.
That’s not to disparage other players, almost all of which have had to retire from a match at some point. Again, Venus could have easily done lasting damage last night, and we might find out later she did. There’s a risk calculation. Of course, there are more than enough players who look for the towel to throw at the slightest urging. Or some who jake their way through matches for a check, and look a lot of times like they can barely be bothered with a profession that makes one rich, allows them to see the world, and play a game for a living (rhymes with “Kyrgios”). Certainly, it will be a curious juxtaposition for the next player who does that this tournament after Venus’s performance.
Venus kept on because that’s what she does. She’s not going to win tournaments anymore, likely. But she loves the game, she loves being out there, and that’s all the meaning she needs. It’s all the meaning we should need. It makes her happy, even if it’s excruciating as it was yesterday. There’s a match to be played, and that’s enough for Venus. Venus is there. The value is in playing. We’ll notice when she’s gone, and you can’t help but feel like that day is soon, but it’s never as close as you’d guess with Venus, because she’s there.