Saturday, June 14, 2008

BACKSPIN SPECIAL: What If Venus Williams...?

For once, Richard Williams wasn't completely in tune with the on-court potential of one of his tennis-playing daughters. Years ago, he said that Venus could still be a champion at age 34. What did he know?

Today, she proved him wrong. She's still a Wimbledon champion... at age 35. Take that, dad.

Just days before her younger sister Serena is to be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, Venus put a final period on the end of a career that will go down as one of the most revolutionary in the history of the sport. With a blend of power and athleticism heretofore largely absent from the women's game, the one-two punch of the Williams sisters forever altered the course of the sport. Two sisters became one once Serena's knee injuries finally did what few opponents could -- render her ineffectual against her will. But the past fortnight at the All-England Club, Venus' last there or anywhere else as a full-fledged competitor, wasn't about the ground breaking siblings.

It was all about Venus.

The older Williams sister definitively carved out her final niche in tennis lore by becoming the 131-year old tournament's second nine-time Ladies' champion this afternoon, tying the mark set by Martina Navratilova in 1990. Still a physical marvel at age fifty-eight, Navratilova was in attendance in the Centre Court Royal Box to give a fitting Caesar-like thumbs-up to the action taking place before her. The Czech-born American, too, brought change to the sport with her dedication to physical fitness, weight training and all-around athleticism nearly thirty-five years ago. Call it a case of one monumental figure giving a respectful nod of approval to another even as she's shoved a little deeper into the sport's box of memories, much as Jack Nicklaus did from the edge of the 18th green in Augusta, Georgia when he witnessed Tiger Woods surpass his career major mark at the Masters not long ago.

It was with powerful groundstrokes and a still-dominant serve that Williams sliced up the destined-to-be-a-footnote-in-Venus'-career-bio final opponent of her career, just turned 24-year old Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a Top 10 player still trying to clear the impressive bar of accomplishment set by Maria Sharapova and her grand slam winning countrywomen who first rose to prominence at the midway point of Williams' career. The Russian put up a good fight, for a while, but ultimately fulfilled her role as a ritualistic "sacrificial lamb" on the altar of history with great composure. As expected, this final victory was but a formality. One might even call it a coronation. Or just maybe one final hug for a private champion who steadfastly attempted to avoid the limelight that her double digit slam-winning sister fully embraced, but who ultimately could not avoid it throughout her 22-year career.

In the wake of Serena's great WTA success, for a while it appeared that the first Williams sister to hit the tennis scene might turn out to be the "overlooked" one. But longevity has it's benefits, as Venus' final SW19 crown forever moved her one career slam title ahead of her Hall of Fame-bound sibling, albeit without Serena's stupendous zeniths or the nadir of her occasionally baffling periods of inactivity and/or frustration. Or maybe it was simply Serena's tricky knee. Either way, the younger Williams was destined to be a star, while Venus Ebony Starr was content with being the best that she could be, on and off court.

Maybe it was Venus' calmer demeanor that allowed her time in the limelight, always on her own terms, to be extended far beyond what has become the norm for female tennis stars. Her career balance sheet is littered with generational rivals long gone, or nearly so. Lindsay Davenport is raising a future U.S. Olympic team. Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin were brief Belgian flashes that burned brightly, but burned out far too soon. Amelie Mauresmo rode a career rollercoaster, then held on for dear life. Even Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic, who arrived on the scene many years after Venus debuted, are currently dropping hints that their careers might be in their twilight. The venerable Venus played on, and nearly outlasted each and every one. On Saturday, whether or not they were there in person along with Serena and the rest of the Williams clan, they were watching Venus complete her concluding victory lap around Centre Court.

At this Wimbledon, Williams allowed the stages of her career to casually flash before our eyes one last time as she progressed through the draw. Ever since she was the first female player to walk onto Centre Court on Day One, one day after she announced her intention to retire following the tournament, she'd been THE focus of this event and the subject of myriad stories and recollections of all things Venus. She dominated her Romanian opponent in the 1st Round, with her long legs and net-smothering wingspan bringing a twinkle to the eye of anyone old enough to remember first seeing a teenaged Williams, braids clacking together with every step, devouring ground like a Formula One race car while chasing down a ball hit to the edges of the court.

Once again playing the in-her-prime role of the dominant player who seemed fated to overpower the field forever against one of the young Americans trying unsuccessfully to follow in her footsteps, Williams congenially "allowed" a late game to her 3rd Round opponent to avoid a potentially soul-crushing double-bagel final score. Then, in the quarterfinals, she was forced to scramble in the 3rd set after narrowly avoiding elimination and saving a match point against Victoria Azarenka, the 25-year old two-time slam winner from Belarus.

Venus, as we learned so often throughout her career, is still most definitely human.

In the semifinals, playing one final match under the Centre Court roof on a characteristically drizzly London afternoon, Williams' affinity for the court -- open roof or closed -- was evident. Ivanovic, who's spent much time at #1 over the last seven years while claiming titles at every slam except Wimbledon (losing to Venus in one of her three trips to the final), was no match for a sister on a mission that was anything but impossible as the scent of a ninth title drew Venus into her familiar SW19 zone.

On the day of the final, the roof was open again. It was a sunny day, despite a weather forecast that had called for anything but. The whispers around the grounds were that the tennis gods had cashed in a few favors with Mother Nature in order to get a better view -- they simply were not going to miss this.

But even as the entire fortnight had curiously gone almost according to script (maybe even one that the sisters could revisit for a biopic they may one day produce for their co-owned entertainment production company), Venus wasn't going to walk away without a bit of drama to leave 'em wanting more. She began the final with the flair of her prime, nearly faltered as she did during her "off" years, then charged back with veteran distinction.

Up 5-1, Williams blinked when she tried to wrap up the 1st set with a swinging volley into an open court after Pavlyuchenkova had taken a spill returning a crosscourt forehand, perhaps distracting Venus. The Russian took advantage of her luck, holding serve for 5-2, breaking Williams, then closing to within 5-4 thanks to a string of Venus forehands errors. A murmur swept through the crowd like a tension-filled wave, and the voices of all in attendance pitched in with a collective breath: "This isn't how things were supposed to happen," everyone thought. "This is THAT Venus... not THE Venus. THAT Venus wasn't invited to this party."

The voices were right.

With the set on her racket, the big serve that served Venus well during the most important moments throughout her career reappeared. She opened the game with an ace. 122 mph. Then hit another. 123 mph. Three points later, she slammed her third ace of the game -- 125 mph -- to take the set 6-4.

The look of resignation on Pavlyuchenkova's face as she trudged to her seat for the changeover said it all. She didn't like it, but she understood her role on this day. In the 2nd set, Williams' Wimbledon aura embraced her in a clinch for all eternity. Everything worked. Booming serves boomed louder. Crisp volleys were crisper. Seemingly out-of-range balls were miraculously made to rest in her wheelhouse with a few long strides to her left, or her right. The Russian could do nothing more than watch, and admire the display of an aging arsenal with the same lethal qualities of a decade (or two) ago.

As the end drew near, with Pavlyuchenkova still searching in vain for her first game of the set, Venus and the crowed seemed to relish every stroke. Every point. Every moment. As she set up for an overhead smash on match point, Centre Court was frozen in time and space. There was no sound... until the calm was unmistakably broken by the clear crack of a crushing shot that echoed around every crevice of the old place It was as beautiful a final shot as it was unhittable -- a perfect exclamation point and a final reminder of what Williams brought to the game. Take that, ball (it nearly reached Navratilova in the Royal Box). Now she'll go on with the rest of her life.

Being that it's been three years since Williams won a singles title, not coincidentally when she claimed Wimbledon title #8, one would forgive her forgetfulness about what to do during a post-match trophy presentation. But any worries were put to rest when she grasped the Ladies championship plate for the final time as a champion. Even during her "semi-retirement" (her words) over the last three seasons, when she'd routinely pick and choose which tournaments to play based purely on what they personally meant to her, Williams was taking care of her body while keeping tabs on history out of the corner of her eye, knowing that the All-England Club was a place where she could still dominate for two weeks even if she essentially put in only cameo appearances on the tour the rest of the season. The possibility of title #9 kept her coming back, not wanting to officially call it a career. After being bounced in the 1st Round of the Australian Open in January, she went public with her plan to not play again until May. The thought around tennis circles was that Venus was gearing up for "something"... and everyone knew what IT was.

Her awarding of the #8-seed by the All-England Club despite a ranking that would have given her a slot somewhere around #28 drew an argument from some corners, but only a half-hearted one. It was Venus and Wimbledon... and what that meant was obvious. Even while her game's balance was always a more fragile enterprise than that of her sister's, it could also sometimes be more spectacular in its thudding superiority on a given day. But no matter her age or the quality of her game at other tournaments through the years, at SW19 she was nearly always able to rediscover a comfort level that enabled her to overcome her bad days. Even while dressed in all white, Venus was gold on one particular patch of grass.

Asked after the match whether she preferred winning championships on Centre Court with or without the roof, she flashed a big smile and said, "Both. It's Wimbledon... I'm good to go. I love this place."

While whatever role Williams may play in the sport in her later years is unknown, the scrapbook of memories she brought her fans won't fade anytime soon. From the beads to "The Bump" from Irina Spirlea in New York, from the somewhat nonplussed look on her face when Serena raised a grand slam trophy first to her taking pictures after losing to her sister in a slam final years later, after their headline-grabbing familial assault on the tour produced numerous all-Williams slam finals and gave birth to the "primetime" women's final at the U.S. Open. From her maiden golden Olympic smile to her unbridled I-can't-stop-jumping reaction to pulling off a "comeback" with her Wimbledon title in 2005.

Off the court during her career, the closely-guarded Williams was one of the most accomplished, as well. She graduated with a fashion degree in 2007 and started her own clothing design business, EleVen, which received awards for its low-priced sportswear. The venture was soon joined by another business specializing in interior design. In the mid-2000's, she took the lead in vocalizing the women's players' desire for equal prize money at all the slams, putting her in unique company with Billie Jean King (another Wimbledon record holder, as she's tied with Navratilova with twenty total titles). As usual, Williams' campaign was successful.

Of course, as Venus prepared to exit her field of dreams for the final time, the question was raised about whether she, like Navratilova before her, would attempt to claim singles title #10 by playing into her late thirties. Williams knew the query would come.

"I always say, 'Never say never," she said as the crowd began to clap. Then Williams raised her hand, and everyone observed the Grass Queen's request and stopped. "But I could never lie to all of you while standing on Centre Court. So when I say this is it... this is it. The time is right." The spontaneous tear that suddenly appeared on her cheek seemed to back up her declaration. Then, after a moment, the mischievous smile flashed again. "Plus, if I won number ten, Martina might want to kill me." The crowd, along with the winking Navratilova a few feet away, erupted in laughter.

But if her playing days are over, what next? The smile persisted, but this time it came with a teasing response about the things still to come. "Just wait. I'll probably surprise you."

After snatching a few blades of grass for safe keeping, and giving one more curtsy and a wave to her fans, she ducked through the door leading to the players' lockerroom. Suddenly, Centre Court was no longer the same.

Venus was gone. Never to be forgotten in this place... nor any other.

PREVIOUS "WHAT IF" EDITIONS: Volume I (Monica Seles) & Volume II (Kim Clijsters)


Blogger Diane said...

Richard Williams also said it was disgraceful (or some similar adjective; it may have even been "disgusting") for a woman over a certain age (and that age, if I remember correctly, was around 25 or 26) to continue playing pro tennis. So an older Venus champion would do him proud and disgrace him at the same time, I guess.

Mon Jun 16, 02:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Since it'd be one of his daughters, I'm sure he'd embrace the inconsistency. :)

Plus, Venus was 27 when she won Wimbledon last year... so I guess it's already a fact. :D

Mon Jun 16, 05:09:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

You mean, Richard spoke hastily and irrationally AGAIN? Oh, no...

Wed Jun 18, 08:24:00 PM EDT  

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