LONDON—When Venus and Serena Williams were young and in the early, heady days of their dominance, they used to talk about how they felt as if they took on new personas when they reached the second week of a Grand Slam. Like the born champions they were, they walked and talked—and most important, played—with more confidence the closer they came to the crown.
That was especially true for Venus at Wimbledon. Once she settled in and reached the latter stages of the event, she made Centre Court her second home and personal workspace. She won her first eight semifinals here (Her loss in that round last year was her first.) Only her sister has beaten her in a Wimbledon final. If it wasn’t for Serena, Venus might have eight titles here, and she would be trying to tie Martina Navratilova’s modern record of nine as we speak.
Instead, Williams will have to settle for tying another remarkable Navratilova record: With her concise and convincing 6-3, 7-5 win over Jelena Ostapenko on Tuesday, the 37-year-old American became the oldest player to reach a Wimbledon semifinal since Martina did it on her last-hurrah run to the final in 1994. In her 20th Wimbledon, Venus reached her 10th semi.
Whatever her age, Venus played with her old sense of command on Centre Court on Tuesday. As with Andy Murray, the fast surface and the this-is-serious atmosphere in that arena seem to help her channel her game, to play with a simple, straightforward, self-assured sense of aggression. It starts—and almost ends—with her serve, which gave her a decisive edge over Ostapenko at the start of each rally. Venus had eight aces to Ostapenko’s one; more important, 53 percent of her serves went unreturned, compared to 20 percent for Ostapenko.
No serve was bigger than the one Venus came up with at 4-5, 15-30 in the second set. She had let an early lead in that set slip, and now was just two points from having to play a third. When her toss went up and out to her right, it was easy to see what she was planning to do with the ball: Slide it down the T. Even so, Ostapenko had no chance to catch up to the slice that Venus put smack onto the center service line. Afterward, Venus made it sound as if she were saving her best serves for just this occasion.
“Been working on that serve,” Venus said later. “It’s working out for me just in time, just for these later rounds. I’d like to think that I can rely on that as the matches continue.”
Venus won the last three games with powerful but safely-measured ground strokes sent deep and down the middle of the court. She hit her forehand, which has often been her shakier wing, with pace and consistency. For the first time since the start of the French Open, Ostapenko couldn’t dictate play. She was handcuffed.
“I definitely think experience helps, for sure,” Venus said while lauding Ostapenko’s skills as a player, and especially as a competitor. “For a lot of the players I’ve played, it’s their first time in the third round or the quarterfinals. So I have an opportunity to bank on experience in having dealt with those sort of pressures before.”
Ostapenko’s magical 11-win ride is over. Is Venus about to complete a sixth magical, title-winning ride of her own at Wimbledon? It would be her most remarkable yet, not just because of her age, but because of what has been on Venus’ mind: the fatal traffic accident that she was involved in last month in Florida. Early in the tournament, she teared up talking about the crash, and while she’s no longer asked about it, there’s still an understandably somber quality to her press conferences. Her answers are short, though they’re still shot through with the same mystical optimism as always, the same mystical optimism that you need to make the Wimbledon semis at 37.
“I love the last day you play, you’re still improving,” Venus said. “It’s not something that is stagnant. There’s always a reason. You have to get better. I love that.”
“The competition with other players,” she continued. “The competition keeps you growing. You have to get better if you want to stay relevant.”
“I feel quite capable, to be honest, and powerful,” she said when she was asked how she has played so well for so long. “As long as I feel like that, I know I can compete for titles any time.”
There’s mental toughness, and there’s knowing how to compartmentalize. And then there’s what Venus has been doing over this fortnight. She has never been emotive on court, but during this tournament she has been even more stoical and subdued than usual. Her wins bring a smile, but it’s one of satisfaction and relief rather than the giddiness she typically shows in victory. She says she feels as if Serena and her father, while they’re not here, are “fighting right alongside me.”
In the old days, Venus and her sister would grow more confident in the later rounds at Wimbledon, and as they took command of Centre Court. Those old instincts have kicked in again, right when she has needed them most. As she says, there’s always a reason to get better. A Wimbledon title at 37 may be the best reason of all.
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