The United States celebrated its 242nd birthday on Wednesday. What did the country’s two best tennis players of this century, Venus and Serena Williams, do to mark the occasion? They were doing what they usually do at this time of year: Keeping their country’s title hopes alive at Wimbledon. There are seven other U.S. women still alive in the draw, but only Venus and Serena have won the tournament before. They have 12 titles between them; none of their countrywomen have reached so much as a semifinal.
Venus made her debut at Wimbledon in 1997; she’s missed it just once since, in 2013. This year, at 38, she returns 12 months after playing her ninth final on Centre Court. Venus lost in the first round at the Australian Open and French Open this year, but was there ever a doubt that she would rise to the occasion at the All England Club?
By now, Venus has stripped away everything inessential about tennis. She doesn’t do on-court autographs or selfies. She rarely challenges line calls or celebrates winning points or wastes an ounce of energy on anything other than swinging her racquet. And she’s over the whole post-match interview thing. On Monday, after the media had spent 10 minutes squeezing only the barest amount of information out of Venus, a frustrated reporter finally asked, “Is it very boring for you to answer all our questions?” Venus laughed and said, “I have other stuff I need to do, like get ready for the next match.”
Getting ready doesn’t get any easier as the years go by, even when you have a day off. It turned out that Venus wasn’t quite ready for her second-round encounter with Alexandra Dulgheru on Wednesday. She started slowly and sluggishly, and lost the first set, 6-4. She played a point with a shoelace untied. She huffed and puffed between points. But she gradually raised her game to a place where Dulgheru couldn’t go.
WATCH—Match point from Venus' win over Dulgheru:
In 1998, Venus hit a 127-M.P.H. serve, the hardest in WTA history to that point. Today her serve helped her through again. At 1-1 in the third set, just when she was starting to look nervous, she came up with two big first serves to save break points. And in the final game, on her next-to-last serve of the day, she fired one 122 M.P.H.—just five miles off her old record. When the match was over, Venus did her customary wave and twirl, but she couldn’t bring herself to lift her lips into a smile. By now, she knows how to conserve energy in any way possible.
Not long after Venus departed No. 1 Court, Serena entered Centre Court with her own well-practiced game face on. Like Venus, Serena, who had a baby last year, has struggled to find her best form in 2018. She came to Wimbledon just 5-2 on the season, and she had to pull out of the French Open after three matches with an injury. But Wimbledon was always the goal.
Today, in her 6-1, 6-4 win over Viktoriya Tomova, that goal began to look attainable—or at least pursuable. Serena mistimed a few balls early; she had more trouble with the slow pace of Tomova’s shots than anything else. But soon she was tracking down Tomova’s short drops, making difficult smashes look easy, and taking balls off her shoetops and angling them for winners. Serena was doing all the little things, the tricky things, the improvised things that you can’t do if you’re still rusty. It’s a start.
WATCH—Match point from Serena's win over Tomova:
On Monday, Venus was asked what her best memories of Wimbledon were; the only specific thing she mentioned was the 2012 Olympics. That year Serena won gold in singles, and the sisters did the same in doubles, at the All England Club. The Williamses have played every Olympics since Sydney in 2000, and Venus in particular has always talked about her love for the Games, and how they’ve been a factor in motivating her to keep playing into her late-30s.
This July 4th, the Williamses weren’t officially representing their country at Wimbledon. But their two decades at the top of the game do represent an evolution in that nation’s sporting culture. For the first half of the 20th century, tennis, like most sports in the U.S., was segregated; Althea Gibson finally broke that barrier when she entered the U.S. Nationals in 1950, at the relatively late age of 23. Arthur Ashe soon followed in her footsteps on the men’s side, but it wasn’t until the end of the century, and the rise of Venus and Serena, that African-Americans came to dominate the sport.
Where would U.S. tennis have been these last 20 years if Venus and Serena hadn’t been there? Where would U.S. tennis have been if they’d lived, like their father Richard did growing up in Louisiana in the 1940s, in a society that still segregrated its sports? No other tennis players in the Open era have represented this country so brilliantly, for so long, with so little company at the top. It felt right, on this July 4th, that they were representing it again.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.