Venus Williams shows she still has size of the fight in her
The eyes may flicker, the arm might sling it a little shorter and the legs could indeed turn slower, but a great champion’s heart does not wither even under duress.
The passage of time can rob the athlete with its ticking hand, but it can never steal her heart. At her prime, the irresistible Venus Williams powered herself to four of six Grand Slam titles between Wimbledon in 2000 and the US Open the next year. And even Venus might agree that those are memories from a distant past.
Injury and illness have ravaged her cells, making life uncertain for the legendary lady. One thing is certain – on the evidence of her spirited battle at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo – the decorated veteran of the game is as eager to fight as she may have been a decade ago. Venus proved beyond doubt that she was still on the flight traversing the ellipse around the tennis orbit, far from ready to be shadowed by her ill health.
Venus might well be a relic from the past, her body weary and those muscles strained. The American warrior in her though far from ready to be hung on a museum wall.
In contrast, Simona Halep has flexed her young muscles enough to suggest that she might adorn the posters at future tournaments in a post-Williams era on the WTA Tour. Admittedly, a small tournament in Tokyo is barely the stage to showcase a battle between the past and present. But then a great painter rarely awaits the perfect canvas, instead choosing to define the medium by the genius of her work.
A place in the quarterfinals of a premier event is obviously no more than a crumb to a seven-time Grand Slam champion. But Venus, a 33-year-old victim of Sjögren’s syndrome, does not know which match might prove to be her last. And in fending off her talented opponent, the elder stateswoman of the game wrote another compelling passage that shall adorn the final pages of her wonderful story.
And it is a story written in gold, for not only was Venus the first African American to become the world No. 1 but she was also largely responsible for heralding a brave new era of power tennis for the women.
Unfortunately for the elder Williams, she had to make way for her own indomitable younger sibling rather early in her career. The graciousness with she celebrated the successes of Serena Williams, often at her own expense have endeared Venus to her loyal collection of fans across the globe. Of course, those three years at Wimbledon till 2009, including back-to-back titles and a third straight final helped her retain a place in their collective conscience.
That emotionally beautified run to the semifinals of the 2010 US Open amidst her own people also etched itself into their membranes too.
Tragedy struck Venus when she returned to the site of her stirring campaign a year later. Just about to face Sabine Lisicki in the second round of the US Open, Venus was forced to withdraw from the match due to the debilitating effects of her newly acquired autoimmune disease. It is a curse that tricks your own immune cells into destroying the glands that produce saliva and tears, leading to a state in which Venus is unable to take to the court. Sjögren’s also has a rheumatic effect, often causing arthritis related trauma among its victims, adding to the uncertainty for the elder Williams.
However, the complexity in the script of her life has not affected the infectious spirit of Venus. There was plenty of evidence this week from her performances against Victoria Azarenka in the second round and the brilliantly engineered turnaround against Halep.
Venus, down to 63rd in the rankings, upset the top-seeded Belarusian in straight sets to reach the round of 16. The veteran might have been encouraged by the gravity of her result, but Halep wasted barely any time to bring Venus back to the realm of reality.
The Romanian, set to turn 22 on Friday, is in the midst of the most exciting season of her fledgling career. Halep has won all her four career tour titles this year, building a 44-15 record ahead of her clash against Venus. The 18t- ranked Halep though was reduced to a prop at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, which turned into an amphitheatre for Venus to exhibit her powers of persuasion. The 33-year-old was down a set and a break in the second set before taking centre stage. At 4-3, with a break in hand, Halep was just two games away from a spot in the last eight.
But Venus was far from ready to pack her bags and catch a flight. Instead she let her rich imagination take a free ingress into her vault of memories to draw out a lesson in resilience and persistence. In fact the determined American staved off danger time after time – Halep was up a break three times in the second set, but Venus fought like an impassioned young soldier battling for survival to evade defeat. Even in the final set, Halep brushed aside the setback of the lost set to break Venus and gain what appeared to be a decisive advantage.
Halep had game point for a commanding 3-0 lead in the third set. On the brink of defeat yet again, Venus mounted a stirring comeback that left the crowd breathing heavy in excitement. Bringing her experience to bear, Venus wore her opponent down with some typically counter attacking tennis that saw her take six of the final seven games to earn an impressive, if improbable, victory to send out the strongest signal yet of a desire to stay the course despite her advancing years.
It will be interesting to see if Venus can sustain her run through to the weekend. There is no doubting the steady bout of cheers that might follow if she were to keep her stock alive and mount a challenge for her first title since Luxembourg last October. Immediately though, Venus will have an opportunity to take a close look at another promising future star in Eugenie Bouchard. It promises to be another engaging battle between the wisdom of experience and youthful exuberance.
Irrespective of the results this week, her fans will feel delighted again at the sudden signs of life from the legend who seemed destined for the inevitable journey into the night.