Today, we’ll shift to the women in our “uncomfortable questions” series. Think of these daily posts as posing questions that nobody wants or thinks to ask in the midst of all those animated conversations about the favorite sons (and daughters) as Wimbledon approaches. Today, I’ll ask:
Is this the end of the road for Venus Williams?
It seems strange, doesn’t it? But with sister Serena soaking up the headlines like a biscuit sopping up gravy, Venus is so far off the radar that you rarely even hear her name anymore. It’s a shame, or it would be, if we sensed that this somehow hurt or troubled Venus. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Did you even know that she celebrated her 33rd birthday yesterday, and that number is just one tick off her WTA ranking? (No. 34, not No. 32.) But that’s the thing with Venus—she never did seem like the person who would like to see a big to-do made about it.
Venus will be taking part in her 17th Wimbledon next week. She may, with the tournament's discretion, earn one of the final seeds, while Serena will be top-seeded as well as most fabulously and deservedly hyped. But let’s remember that Venus has won this tournament five times, albeit not since 2008, and her 71-11 record is still four wins better than Serena’s. You’ve certainly accomplished something if you have a better record at Wimbledon than Serena.
Venus played her last Wimbledon final in 2009, losing to Serena 7-6 (3), 6-2. After that, she was beaten in back-to-back tournaments by Tsvetana Pironkova (go figure), and last year was knocked out unceremoniously—6-1, 6-3—by No. 79 Elena Vesnina. The once common prospect of an agonizing, late-tournament clash with Serena is now an outlandish dream reserved for the most hopelessly unrealistic of fans. The sad truth is that Venus is fading from the WTA picture, and very quickly.
Excluding Fed Cup, the older Williams sister hasn’t won a match since Charleston, way back at the start of April. She won three matches there, struggling against Monica Puig and Varvara Lepchenko before having an easier time with Madison Keys. Venus then met Serena in the semis, and was comprehensively and remorselessly beaten, 6-1, 6-2.
Granted, Venus has played only two official tournaments since then, Rome and Roland Garros, where she lost to Laura Robson and Urszula Radwanska, respectively. But that latter match was a bitter and protracted tussle that went the distance after an exchange of tiebreakers, the less-heralded Radwanska winning the third set 6-4. Venus is just 10-5 on the year; her best win thus far has been over No. 27 Lepchenko.
It all began to go wrong for Venus in a big way in 2011. A hip injury forced her to pull out of the Australian Open, where she was seeded fourth, during her third-round match with Andrea Petkovic. It was the first time she retired during a major since 1994.
Venus wouldn’t return to the tour until the Eastbourne grass event, by which time her ranking had dropped to No. 33. She played just nine matches the rest of that year, partly because she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome. The autoimmune disease forced her to pull out of the U.S. Open after just one completed match, and she finished the year ranked No. 103—and worrying about her future in tennis.
Venus fought her way back up to No. 24 in the course of 2012, but the omens weren’t entirely favorable. The disease continued to have an impact on her ability to compete; Venus won just four matches in Grand Slam and Olympic play. But she did win a minor tournament at the end of the year, besting No. 70 Monica Niculescu in the final at Luxembourg.
But neither time nor the vigor of youth is on Venus’ side anymore, and what compensations she derives from life as a mature adult are unlikely to provide benefits on the tennis court, except in one way—she certainly knows enough now to cherish her moments of success, which may end up being most gratifying in doubles.
Venus and Serena Williams remain the best of all women’s doubles teams, and probably the best ever. Furthermore, they’re such iconic players that people flock to watch them. I’d bet you’d have a tougher time finding a seat at one of their doubles matches than for a singles battle between Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska. That must not only help soften the mental blows Venus has endured, but it also enables her to take a good look around, enjoying the scenery, as she winds down her career. Lots of players don’t get that chance; they’re forced to skulk away from the game with their tails between their legs, beaten down by an accumulation of losses that make even the best of time seem too far way and too long ago.
The looming question at the moment regarding Venus appears to be, “Does she have one more good singles run left in her?” Given her athletic gifts, I’m tempted to write that she does, despite her age. But those other factors—the Sjogren’s syndrome, the niggling injuries, the consistent lack of regular match play, the burnout she must feel at times, after 18 years with a WTA ranking—those are warning signs. Their net weight may be too much of a burden to bear.
I wonder sometimes if Venus counts herself lucky to have Serena around, taking up most of the oxygen in the room. To some degree, it has enabled Venus to weather the challenges she’s steadily faced since 2011 in relative privacy. And this: Because she will be in great demand as a doubles player, she can leave the game without leaving the game, if you know what I mean. Perhaps she’s already done so.
Personally, I’m hoping Venus has one more strong singles run left in those wonderful long legs, that we get to see her rain down a few more of those 129 M.P.H. aces—she still leads Serena, and all other WTA stars, in the fastest serve competition; her sister’s best recorded serve is still fourth-tenths of a second slower—and that we can enjoy the way those long strides eat up the court as she closes on the net.
My favorite women’s match of all time probably is the 2005 Wimbledon final, in which Venus got the best of Lindsay Davenport, 9-7 in the third. That match gave us the best of both worlds: Davenport’s remarkably clean, crisp shot-making, and Venus’ explosive, aggressive athleticism. My fondest wish for this Wimbledon is to see Venus in that mode just one more time, although a few more times would suit me even better.