Labors of Love

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MELBOURNE—This was the first day of the year’s first Grand Slam, but it wasn't long before it took on a familiar feel. By early afternoon, Ernests Gulbis had dynamited a racquet. Tomas Berdych had debuted “the shirt heard round the world,” an ultra-loud blue-striped number that could have been stolen from his friend Radek Stepanek’s clothes closet. And Venus Williams, 33 years old and kicking off her 18th season on tour, was playing her lungs out again.

It has been 17 years—literally, half a lifetime—since Venus reached her first major final, at the 1997 U.S. Open. In those days, her long legs soared across the baseline and took her wherever she needed to go; her opponents struggled to get a single ball past her. Looking back on that Open, Venus has said that she looked like the tennis-player version of a “yearling”—an untamed talent, happily set loose on the sport. The women’s game had never seen a mix of athleticism and determination like hers.

Venus’s legs still take her far, though the effort to get there is more obvious. In the rising heat inside Margaret Court Arena today, she grunted loudly on every swing, and by the start of the third set she stood slump-shouldered between rallies, struggling to recover. Her opponent, 25-year-old Ekaterina Makarova of Russia, had no trouble hitting balls past her. These days Williams, a seven-time grand Slam champion, can’t count on any easy matches, even in first rounds. Today it was Makarova who was the seeded player, and the favored player. 

And in the end it was Makarova who believed that she should win, while Williams couldn’t find the confidence or consistency to close it out. Up a set and serving at 4-4 in the second, Venus double-faulted three straight times and was broken. Ahead again 3-0 in the third, she began squandering break points and game points with routine backhand misses, and eventually lost 2-6, 6-4, 6-4. By the end, Venus’s grunts had turned to wails of frustration as her shots found the net and landed wide of the sidelines. 

Afterward, Venus was her usual stoical, placidly distant self in defeat. She said she “definitely wanted a different result," she “tried to put the ball in the court and play aggressive," but her “level was too up and down." 

Asked about her health—Williams has the energy-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome—she said she has had her issues in the past year, but that she’s “looking forward to having a good run and feeling well” again.

When the inevitable talk of retirement arrived, Venus deflected it quickly. “I love tennis,” she said, “It’s fun. I think that is definitely motivation for me, something that I enjoy.”

There’s really no arguing with that. If a former champion can take the losses and still find the simple act of playing tennis “fun,” she really can go on as long as she likes. Watching and listening to Venus today, I was reminded of Lleyton Hewitt, the Aussie hero who keeps riding into the sunset and then riding back out of it—his latest rise from the ashes was a win over Roger Federer in Brisbane last week.

Venus and Hewitt have had similar career arcs. She’s 33; he’ll be 33 next month. They both won Grand Slams and were at the top of the sport in 2001 and 2002, when they were in their early 20s, but each was left in the dust by a legend—in Venus’s case, it was her sister Serena; in Rusty’s, it was Federer. Neither Hewitt nor Williams, each of them a victim of countless injuries, has been in the mix at the majors for years. Venus last reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal in 2010, Hewitt in 2009. The difference between them is the nature of the flaws that held them back—Venus lacked consistency, Hewitt lacked power.

But neither has shown a hint of regret or anger about their fates. One of the pleasures of being a tennis fan is to follow a player and see where the sport takes them—a career is a lifetime in microcosm. Unlike in fiction, where lives are foreshadowed, you never know where any player will end up. Venus began her career with the stony entitlement of a dominant future champion. It would have been very difficult to imagine her, when she was a teenager and staring down Steffi Graf at Wimbledon, losing in the first round at the Aussie Open at 33 and saying, as she did today, “I’ll just try my best in the doubles and, you know, root Serena on.” It would have been equally difficult to imagine the screaming, red-faced, finger-pointing Hewitt of his early years, a champion at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, being satisfied as a journeyman in his 30s.

For Venus and Hewitt, it seems, tennis is what they do, and it's enough. If Federer and Serena show us what greatness looks like in this sport, Venus and Hewitt show us, in their stoical refusal to be disappointed by their fates, what the simple day-to-day love of playing it looks like. Whether they know it or not, Venus and Rusty are lucky. Not many of us love our jobs. If you do, why would you ever want to leave it?

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