Time running out on Venus. At 24, tennis a real pain.
Time running out on Venus
At 24, tennis a real pain
Venus Williams started grunting in earnest during the final game of the match, and it was way too late by then. Grunt ... Winner ... Grunt ... Long forehand ... Grunt ... Long forehand again ...
"Sometimes, they get louder, the closer it gets," Lindsay Davenport would say later, not particularly sympathetic. "I think you either grunt all the time or you don't, I don't know."
At least Venus was into it now, her long body curling into a coiled spring and lashing out with a racket that once intuitively understood the boundaries of a tennis court. She managed a brilliant forehand crosscourt passing shot, to save one of five match points. But then a final forehand sailed long, her 42nd unforced error. Venus was packing her bag and waving her way out of Arthur Ashe Stadium after a fourth-round loss, 7-5, 6-4.
It's painful to watch this version of Venus now, and maybe that's because it's painful for her to play. Although her abs, her wrist, her lower leg muscles have mostly healed, they never quite allow her to practice enough to make up for her repetitions deficit. Even after her relatively late pro career start and all the careful pacing, she is not immune from the occupational hazards of her craft.
Basically, she is falling apart, just as Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and so many others did before her. It's hard to believe, when you consider her sparse tour schedule and remember that bouncy, natural athlete who came onto the scene in Oakland a decade ago, all limbs and shy smiles.
"I can't believe how long her legs are," Martina Navratilova said about Venus, back at that debut tournament in 1994. Before Serena was a name, a champion or a fashion model, it seemed Venus would march forth alone, and that there would be no stopping her cannonballs.
But a body is only a body, and tennis is a cruel, cross-training vocation. What came so naturally to her once, the simple forehand winner down the line, is now tangled in worn sinews and a paralyzing thought process. When you start noticing the lines, you start missing them.
Venus insisted she was thinking out there less than in recent losses. "I'm getting there, I'm getting there," she said. "It's just for me a matter of being able to stay out on the court and practice and not have these intermittent injuries every few weeks."
But at age 24, Venus is racing against time and the very nature of women's power tennis. This year, the three winners of the Grand Slam majors were aged 21, 22 and 17. At the moment, Davenport, 28, is enjoying an uncommon confluence of good health and great tennis. Davenport could win here, but she may then retire in order to avoid the next ailment.
Lindsay vs. Venus is therefore an endangered rivalry that now stands at 13-12 for Davenport, and those results have largely been determined by injury and recovery cycles. Davenport has captured three straight, including a match this summer in Los Angeles in which Venus retired because of a wrist problem.
Venus faltered yesterday whenever the pace and angle of a rally became too exacting. Strangely, the crowd reveled in her mis-hits, in her double faults. The fans were incapable of grasping the notion that a Williams sister is an underdog now. She remains gracious and modestly attired, whatever that means. When an overrule went against her on a key point in the second set, she barely raised an eyebrow. Still, the fans view her through nostalgic eyes, as the bully with the big serve.
That first serve went in only 56% of the time, another problem. Venus was able to reach back and serve at 123mph in the fifth game of the match, but the radar gun numbers started slumping along with her confidence, and her shoulders. On crossovers, Venus marched from one end of the court to the other with all the zeal of a zombie juggling other interests in the afterlife.
"If I didn't develop myself and have interests outside the court, I feel I would be stagnant and uninteresting," Venus said. "Tennis is my career, where I put most of my time, but also there are other things that interest me."
When it comes time to leave tennis, the other things - fashion, business - may not reward her as famously as Wimbledon or Flushing Meadows. They won't tear any muscles, though, and she may never need to grunt again.