MIAMI, Fla.—The gentle breeze over Key Biscayne rattled the palm fronds, the island was bathed in the honeyed glow of late tropical afternoon, and turkey vultures indolently rode the thermals high above this former dump site. The occasional exhortations of the sparse crowd still left in the stadium at Crandon Park had to compete with the untroubled “cheep, cheep” of birds feasting on leftover crumbs in the empty aisles.
“Come on, Vee,” a lonely voice pleaded.
Venus Williams toed the line at the service line, tossed the ball and—pop!—delivered a serve at which her opponent, Casey Dellacqua, could only wave at. A short time later, as Dellacqua and her coach chattered away during a changeover, I found myself hoping that Richard Williams would march out, look his daughter in the eye, and say, “Hey, baby. I love you. Hug?”
But Venus was taking care of business all by her lonesome, as she has done for some time now. Here she was, embroiled with Dellacqua, a volatile Australian left-hander who’s been on a roll, and you had to wonder what Venus was thinking as she gazed out over that vast expanse of empty seats. Whatever it was, it wasn’t, “Why bother?”
She knows why she bothers.
“If I go down it's never easy,” Venus would say later. “At least my opponent knows they have to go to the end of the earth to take me out no matter what the circumstances, usually. . . being out here, even if it's not your best day, no matter what the circumstances are, for me, I just try to walk off the court knowing at least even if I didn't play my best I gave 100,000%.”
This may not have been Venus’ best day. Sometimes it seems that her best days, the kind that once inspired the WTA to use her silhouette as its logo, seem long behind her. She’s 33 years old, and suffers from an energy-draining and fatigue-enabling condition called Sjogren’s syndrome. On top of all that, she had her hands full today with an able and gritty 29-year-old who’s never experienced anything like Venus’ degree of success.
Dellacqua, the daughter of a mechanic and owner of a lefty game that’s sweet in the same way that a vintage Mustang still appeals today, has been healthy and playing some fetching tennis. With a ranking of No. 56, she’s not that far behind Venus, who stands at No. 31. She’s been ranked as high as No. 39 (2008) but was down to No. 180 last September. Dellacqua’s surge has been so recent that despite her respectable ranking she was given a wild card here. And now that she’s gotten off the farm, she has no desire to go back. “I’m really happy,” she would say despite losing 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. “I don’t want to play ITF or qualifying events any more.”
Dellacqua is a lefty’s lefty. She likes to throw in a bend-it-like-Beckham serve; her forehand, while unstable, can do serious damage when it’s dialed in. Venus leaped out to a 5-1 lead, but barely held on in that first set. Dellacqua’s resistance stiffened even further in the second set, and suddenly there they were, in the waning daylight, neither woman inclined to give up the tug of war.
Venus is off to a great start this year. She’s won a title and all three of her losses were in close three-set encounters—two of them with fellow Grand Slam champions Petra Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic. Yet sometimes it seems that the portion of the world that pays attention to such things is suffering from something like Williams fatigue. It would be understandable, given the lengthy careers the women have had and—perhaps even more relevant—the distance Serena has put between herself and everyone else, including Venus.
At times, it even seems like Venus may even prefer it that way, for she’s neither a natural-born ham like Serena, nor has she shown any particular interest in being understood, or developing a love affair with the public. She is, in many ways, opaque.
Asked in the on-court interview immediately after the match how she felt about the crowd support—an absurd question, given that the crowd by that time numbered in the dozens, not the thousands or even the hundreds—she replied as if it were the first time she’s appeared in the stadium that is a de facto second home to the Williamses. “I’m taking it all in,” she said, quickly changing the subject.
Venus’ inclination always has been to withhold, and for that she’s paid a price, and perhaps been happy to do so. Pressed on her own allusion to being “secretive” about the adjustments she’s had to make in her training schedule because of her health issues, she insisted, “I'm not secretive, but I'm a professional out here. Everyone is under the same conditions and, you know, I might have some extra issues. But those are mine to deal with and not anyone else’s. I will deal with it.”
It may seem unnecessarily stoic, but Venus’ professionalism is also deep-rooted and far-reaching. And that served her well as this match wore on. The women exchanged breaks in the sixth and seventh games of the third set, leaving the score 4-all.
In the ensuing game, Venus looked looked as if she were having trouble mustering the energy to reach up and unload on her serve, but she made up for it with disciplined, stinging groundstrokes that carried her to a hold. Serving to stay in it, Dellacqua fell behind 15-30. After a brief rally, Venus detonated a ferocious, logo-worthy forehand that earned her two match points, and she converted the second to move on to a fourth-round clash with Dominka Cibulkova.
“Serena plays her (Cibulkova) quite a bit,” Venus told the crowd, “I guess I’ll ask her advice.”
Clearly, there are advantages to living in the shadow of Serena Williams.