Wimbledon, the Big W, has often been the home of another Big W: Williams.
For the past several years, Serena Williams completely reshaped expectations of what an old tennis player could achieve.
Serena certainly flourished in the springtime and summer of her career, but her most durable period of dominance has been this autumn empire, this surge of supremacy forged in her 30s, when tennis players generally aren’t supposed to hit their sweet spot.
Martina Navratilova did reach a Wimbledon semifinal in 1992 at age 35, but her prime ended in her early 30s. Steffi Graf took over their rivalry, and while Martina did win a ninth Wimbledon title in 1990 at age 33, that was an exceptional event in her career after turning 31, not the norm.
Serena, on the other hand, put the WTA Tour at her feet as she got older. She came within two wins of completing the Grand Slam (all four majors in the same year) at 33 in 2015. She made three of the four major finals in 2016 at 34 — her “worst” 2016 major was a semifinal showing at the U.S. Open — and played transcendent tennis to win yet another Wimbledon. She then rolled to the 2017 Australian Open title, during which — the world later learned — the 35-year-old was pregnant with her first child.
Serena got better with age, but in 2017, family came first.
How entirely poetic — and deeply moving — it is to see that family has still come first for the Williamses in a different sense: on the tennis court.
Venus Williams — who met Serena in the 2017 Australian Open final, and would very likely own several more major titles if her younger sister hadn’t gotten in the way — has taken the baton from her pregnant sister and kept the Big W in the center of the global sports spotlight … at the Big W of Wimbledon.
In the process, Venus has drawn and completed a large historical circle linking 2017 with Wimbledons past.
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Venus, serving big on the most important points and playing with the confidence of a player residing in her spiritual home, reached her ninth Wimbledon singles final on Thursday. The older Williams sister, recalling the form which carried her to five Wimbledon titles, forged a masterclass on grass, stopping Britain’s Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-2. She will meet Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in Saturday’s final after Muguruza wiped out Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova 6-1, 6-1.
Venus has reached her first Wimbledon final since 2009. Very few players go eight years between finals at any major tournament. Such a feat is a testament not only to the quality of Venus’s game, but the enormity of her perseverance and staying power. The 2009 angle is one way in which Venus has turned back the clock at tennis’ most timeless and history-soaked tournament.
Yet, this Venus victory — combined with Muguruza’s march to the final — has set up a championship showdown in which another historical reference applies: a reference to 1994.
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Venus-Muguruza should be a cracker of a match, as the Brits might say. Big hitting, big serving, aggressive, to-the-point tennis on the sport’s fastest major-tournament surface — the two women’s finalists should trade howitzers on Centre Court’s sun-baked lawn. The tennis is the foremost feature of this clash.
The backdrop, however, will add to the richness of the occasion. Venus-Muguruza recalls the year 1994 on several powerful levels.
First, 1994 marked the last time a 37-year-old player competed in a Wimbledon women’s singles final. Navratilova’s last great moment as a singles player (she continued to win major mixed doubles titles well into her 40s) occurred 23 years ago on her favorite patch of tennis real estate.
Navratilova faced a Spaniard that day, just as 37-year-old Venus will face Spain’s Muguruza on Saturday.
That day, 23 years ago, Navratilova played Conchita Martinez, who won her only major championship and denied Martina a 10th Wimbledon title. (This enabled Rafael Nadal’s 10th French Open, won a month ago, to become the first instance of a singles player, men or women, winning the same major tournament 10 times in the Open Era, which dates back to 1968.)
Saturday, Martinez won’t be on court as a player, but she will be in the coaches’ box in support of Muguruza, whose regular coach, Sam Sumyk, wasn’t able to attend this tournament. Martinez is the common thread between 1994 and Saturday. She can quite literally tell Muguruza, “I know how to beat a 37-year-old Wimbledon and tennis legend in a Wimbledon final.”
The year 1994 — when one 37-year-old tennis icon played a Spaniard for the Wimbledon title — was the year Venus Ebony Starr Williams — age 14 — turned professional.
Muguruza was not even one year old when that 1994 Wimbledon women’s final occurred.
Pick your preferred geometric image heading into a historic Saturday at Centre Court: Venus Williams and Garbine Muguruza both hit their tennis shots flat and on a straight line, but they have drawn a circle over the course of 23 years at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, with Conchita Martinez in the middle of the drama.
History always breathes a little more deeply in tennis when it unfolds at Wimbledon. With Venus Williams turning back the clock with her tennis — and Spain making a bid for another Wimbledon women’s singles title — history will own more than enough oxygen to support what could be a breathtakingly beautiful tennis showcase.