AO Profile: Venus Williams
It’s been 11 years since Williams last won a Grand Slam. Will 2018 be the year Venus returns to the top?
As fruitlessly as the media may probe the grand dame of women’s tennis about her current motivation, whether victories satisfy her for different reasons now, and why she is still playing, so remarkably, at the super-advanced age of 37, perhaps one message resonates above all others. “I like my job,’’ Venus Williams is fond of saying. “That’s why I’m here’’.
Still here. After all this time. Extending a career that started at WTA level as a 14-year-old prodigy in 1994, when Bill Clinton was new to the White House, Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump were playing in cinemas, and OJ Simpson was preparing for his murder trial. Still here, after seven Grand Slam singles titles and 16 combined in doubles and mixed, plus five Olympic medals, four of them gold.
Here, again, in the world’s top five, two decades after first arriving. Starting yet another season, having been the most consistent player of 2016 in the majors - starting with a final at the Australian Open, ending with a semi at the US Open and reaching an extraordinary ninth Wimbledon decider in between.
The fact that - unlike her then-pregnant sister Serena, as well as Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza and Sloane Stephens - she did not win a slam counted against Williams in player-of-the year debates, as she finished the year a mere 578 points behind season-ending No.1 Simona Halep.
Yet what seems harder to process is the fact the most recent of the Floridian’s 49 career titles came in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 23 months ago. Such a force has she been during a career twilight still twinkling so brightly that she will start among the favourites at Melbourne Park, where the closest she has been to the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup is during on-court presentations to Serena, as the runner-up in 2003 and 2017.
“I’m really enjoying seeing the name ‘Williams’ on the trophy. This is a beautiful thing,’’ she said after the family’s ninth joint slam final but first since 2009.“To have the opportunity to play against each other again, and to be able to rise to the occasion, was quite momentous.’’
An activist role model for the younger generations, and a universally admired figure respected by all, Williams wastes neither words in the interview room nor energy outside it, her careful management of the auto-immune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome facilitating a return to the Tour when it seemed she may have faded away. She describes it now as “an endurance race”, and is determined to pace herself, even while being propelled by this late-blowing second wind.
Last year, for example, she played only nine tour events on top of the Slams and the WTA Finals in Singapore, in which Ostapenko and Muguruza were among the scalps collected en route to a final against Caroline Wozniacki, where, again, she fell short. Serena may bristle to hear all of this described as a comeback, arguing that Venus had never left, even if the elder Williams has scant interest in such labels. “At the end of the day I’m trying to hit some forehands and some backhands and do it as best as I can. So that’s always what I’m going for every time.’’
And, six months out from her 38th birthday, not just still here, but succeeding to a degree that few had thought possible. So let’s call it a revival. Or maybe renaissance sounds better. The sneaking suspicion is that what has been a lifetime’s work for Venus Williams, and remains unfinished, has also been something more than a job.