“Venus: She’s Got It” was the message on one fan’s sign at the Australian Open on Tuesday. For much of her first-round match with Mihaela Buzarnescu, though, that sentiment seemed much more hopeful than it did realistic. When the contest began, the 38-year-old Williams was walking slowly between points, and the compression sleeve on her right arm looked ominous—it was bright and pink, yes, but still ominous. In her opening service game, Venus tossed the ball waywardly and was forced to catch it four straight times. She was decelerating on her forehand and dropping into the net. Even her new, free-flowing hairstyle was bothering her.
This was Williams’ first Grand Slam match in more than a decade without her longtime coach, David Witt; that most-stable of tennis partnerships finally ended in the off-season, after Venus dropped out of the Top 10 and all the way down to No. 38—that’s why Buzarnescu was the seed in this contest, rather than the seven-time Grand Slam champion. Williams’ decline began at last year’s Australian Open, when she lost in the opening round to Belinda Bencic. Early losses at the French Open and Wimbledon followed, and she pulled the plug on her season after a quick defeat at the hands of her sister Serena at the US Open. Was she going to stumble at the starting gate again in 2019? Twenty years after her debut Down Under, were we finally witnessing the long-anticipated, long-defied fadeaway of one of tennis’ most enduring champions? Should that fan’s sign have read, “Venus: She’s Had It” instead?
If you’ve been watching Venus long enough, you know that it’s just when thoughts like this begin to creep into your mind that she immediately erases them again. She began to do that midway through the first set against Buzarnescu. Unable to serve all-out, Williams relied on her slow, sliding slice instead. Instead of leaning back on her forehand, as she did at the start, she made a point of getting up to it and attacking it. When Buzarnescu served for the match at 5-3 in the second set, Venus, perhaps aware of the Romanian’s penchant for blowing big leads, dialed back her aggressiveness and waited for Buzarnescu’s nerves to kick in–which they did. By the third set, Williams was in command, and she closed her 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3), 6-2 win with that rarest of gestures from her: A fist-pump, a “Come on!” and a stare across the net that would have done her sister proud.
“I’m banking on my experience,” Williams said when she was asked what it was like to play without Witt. Some wondered whether she would be “match tough” in Melbourne, having entered just one tournament since the US Open. But can someone who has played 1,025 matches since turning pro 25 years ago ever be anything other than match tough?
“I just tried to play better,” Venus said afterward, in her customarily straightforward, no frills fashion. For her, competing is simple, so there’s no reason to complicate it for the media. “I mean, there were moments when it looked like maybe she had the match at that time. I just kind of forgot the score and kind of focused on my game.”
“Every point is another one you can win,” she said. You can add that to the ever-growing list of Venus Williams’s Mystically Wise Tennis Quotes.
What is Venus’ secret to everlasting tennis life? I’d say it’s about always remembering who she is. She’s known who she was, and what she was going to be—a champion—since her father, Richard, embedded the idea in her head when she was a little girl. “Brainwashing” is how Venus has laughingly described the ways in which Richard convinced her that she was going to be a world-beater. Whatever he did, that sense of herself has never left Venus, and it allows her to play the long game when it comes to her career. Losing streaks, devastating defeats, dips in rankings, injuries, illnesses, burnout: Venus can ignore all of the problems that normally plague a pro player, because she knows that, sooner or later, she’ll be Venus Williams again.
In 2017, Venus’ run to the Australian Open final launched her toward one of the best seasons of her career. In 2018, her first round loss in Melbourne led to one of her most disappointing. Will this opening-round comeback win over a quality opponent kick-start another climb up the rankings? Will Venus be Venus again in 2019? Her 25-year career tells us we can never rule it out.
For today, Venus was happy to live in the moment and do the one thing she loves to do most: Get a win. When it was over, she walked out to the middle of the court, waved to the crowd, and went into her traditional victory twirl. She didn’t make it all the way around quite as quickly she might have in the distant past, but she made it. And her grin was as wide as it has ever been. She’s still got it.
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