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Venus Williams: Wimbledon’s real-life love story

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Tuesday of the second week of Wimbledon is devoted exclusively to the women’s quarterfinals. While the men’s quarterfinalists rest for Wednesday, the women play four matches squarely in the spotlight.

After the chaos of Manic Monday — 16 high-stakes singles matches in both the women’s and men’s tournaments — the sparse nature of the Tuesday schedule is jarring. However, the ability to focus only on one singles tournament per day (not both) gives the second week of Wimbledon a welcome degree of clarity.

Within this context, one story eclipsed all others on the fifth of July at the All-England Club.

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On most women’s quarterfinal Tuesdays at SW19, Angelique Kerber’s riveting win over Simona Halep would have received headline treatment.

Kerber, the Australian Open champion, displayed every bit of the form which carried her to a first major title in the process of subduing Halep, a former major finalist in search of her breakthrough moment. Halep did flinch in the decisive second-set tiebreaker, but Kerber’s speed, agility and racquet skills defined the match.

Kerber’s ability to revive her game after a disappointing clay season represents a great development for the WTA. The women have outclassed the men of the ATP at this tournament, but women’s tennis will become even better if non-Serena Williams members of the top 10 can regularly reach the semifinals of major tournaments. Kerber — one win from a second major final in three tournament appearances — shows signs of forging the high-level consistency which has eluded her and many of her peers on tour.

It’s a big development for her, for German tennis, and for the sport at large.

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On other women’s quarterfinal Tuesdays at Wimbledon, Elena Vesnina — making a first major semifinal at age 29, far closer to the end of her career than its beginning — might have captured front-page buzz in the London tabloids and elsewhere. Vesnina thrashed Dominika Cibulkova on Tuesday, and before you say that Cibulova was tired from winning a Monday match that went to 9-7 in the third set, Vesnina pulled off the very same feat. Strictly in terms of physical output, Vesnina had just as much reason to be flat and weary as her opponent. Yet, Vesnina soared, anticipating Cibulkova’s shots with great clarity and depositing her own replies on lines and in corners. She flourished, earning the largest singles paycheck of her lengthy career.

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A person named Serena Williams — ever heard of her? — moved within two wins of a 22nd major title on Tuesday.

The 34-year-old Serena followed the Pete Sampras Grass Tennis Manual — conserve energy; hold serve until 4-4; break serve; then serve out the set — in a 6-4, 6-4 win over a gallant Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who has renewed reason to think she (at 25) can make something of her own career.

Naturally, Serena reaching the semifinals — so close to another date with history in Saturday’s championship match — is a major story.

All three of the stories mentioned thus far — Kerber, Vesnina and Serena — rate as powerful tennis moments, achievements which resonate for three very different sets of reasons.

Yet, on this particular Tuesday at this particular Wimbledon, one story towered over them. No editor would dare suggest otherwise.

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Venus Ebony Starr Williams has won over 700 matches in her career, but Tuesday’s triumph over Yaroslava Shvedova enabled the five-time Wimbledon champion to claim two special distinctions, one of them shared with her sister:

Those two feats ripple through the pages of time at the tournament where tennis history breathes more deeply than anywhere else. It would be more than enough of a story to celebrate what Venus did strictly in tennis terms.

Venus has needed seven games to win the first set in all five Wimbledon singles matches this year. She might have been able to come back in some of those matches had she lost the first set, but it’s highly doubtful she could have completed the long climb in all of them. Venus is winning not with the easy elegance she displayed en route to five Wimbledon singles titles, but with a toughness born of experience and passion.

Antoine Couvercelle/Tennis Magazine/Panoramic/Icon Sportswire

Antoine Couvercelle/Tennis Magazine/Panoramic/Icon Sportswire

Down 2-5 in the first-set tiebreaker to Shvedova, lesser players might have tamely conceded defeat, but Venus kept feeding Shvedova’s go-for-broke forehand in the hope of eliciting an error. Sure enough, Shvedova — ascendant at this tournament but unable to harness her talents over the past four years — tightened up and made five straight errors, most of them unforced.

Venus might not have “won” the set (in other words, the set wasn’t decided by one player’s winning plays, but by an opponent’s mistakes), but “not losing” is often the path which guides a tennis player to the winner’s circle. In previous Wimbledons, Venus has played extremely well and lost — Petra Kvitova beat her in a classic 2014 third-round match. Venus didn’t come close to that standard of play on Tuesday, but won with her persistence and wisdom.

To a certain extent, tennis paid back Venus Williams in this match. Her enjoyment of tennis was rewarded with this sweet, sweet semifinal, her first at a major tournament since she announced that she had Sjogren’s Syndrome (an autoimmune disease which causes fatigue and joint pain) in 2011.

It’s deeply powerful — and impossible — to fully absorb the reality of what Venus has accomplished. She needed over half a decade with this disease to reclaim a higher level of achievement at the tournament which has made her an all-time legend of the sport. She was knocked down and frustrated by so many early-round exits at the majors after her Sjogren’s diagnosis and (later) public announcement. From 2011 through 2014, she didn’t make the quarterfinals in a single major tournament. In 2015, she reached the round of eight at the Australian and U.S. Opens, but at age 36 — while also insisting on playing doubles with Serena at Wimbledon — Venus has dared to add to her workload.

For “normal” athletes, this doesn’t translate to a heightened level of accomplishment.

That’s the point, though: Venus Williams is no ordinary athlete.

Ever since her breakthrough at the 1997 U.S. Open (when she reached the final), Venus has been a substantial figure in the story of women’s tennis. Merely on the court, between the painted white lines, that would be a true-enough statement. However, Venus has become a trail blazer worthy of the legacy of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, the two other late-career Wimbledon semifinalists she joined in the history books on Tuesday.

Venus spearheaded the effort to give women’s tennis players equal prize money at Wimbledon. It would have been so easy for an athlete who grew up in a hardscrabble environment — one in which violence was a regular part of daily life — to savor the creature comforts many millions of dollars provide… and not care about issues beyond herself. Yet, Venus saw herself as part of a larger story. She needed to honor previous generations of women’s tennis players and female athletes by supporting her present-day peers and paving the way for young girls to pursue fruitful athletic careers in their own right.

A five-time Wimbledon champion on the court, a champion of equal pay off the court — Venus Williams is a champion in every sense of the word. She wouldn’t do what she does if she didn’t value what tennis has given to her:

As stated above, tennis rewarded Venus in the sense that her win over Shvedova balanced the scales. It was unfair and cruel to leave Wimbledon in the third round after playing a brilliant match against Kvitova in 2014. This was tennis’s way of compensating.

Yet, it has not gone unnoticed that while tennis might have paid back Venus, Wimbledon has not.

Organizers of this tournament — there is no need to go into any great detail — give Roger Federer, an old champion, every preferential Centre Court slot there is, with a few rare exceptions. Venus should receive the same kind of treatment, but doesn’t. Venus — especially in her majestic 2005 triumph over Lindsay Davenport, quite possibly the best women’s match of the first decade of the 21st century — gave much to Wimbledon on the court. By making Wimbledon a fairer tournament in terms of pay to women, Venus has enhanced The Championships off the court with her activism.

Wimbledon has enabled Venus to make her name in history, but on balance, the tournament has been loved more by Venus than it has loved her back. Venus will get a Centre Court slot on Thursday… only because there are only two singles matches left.

Wimbledon has not been a very kind lover to Venus in these past six years of struggle, but Venus has remained faithful. It’s a complicated relationship, one in which Wimbledon — though often not at its best — remains the gravitational center of tennis because of its history and its way of conferring a large legacy upon its greatest champions.

Venus has played the best tennis of her life at the All-England Club. She’s never felt more comfortable in tennis whites, a pair of shoes, a racquet firmly in hand. To extend the metaphor of this relationship, Venus fell so fully in love with Wimbledon that it was easy for the tournament to take her greatness for granted. Even as Venus substantially improved the structure and substance of Wimbledon over the years, The Championships adjusted to the times in some respects but didn’t fully realize how much affection and respect Venus deserves.

Yes, Venus Williams being in the Wimbledon semifinals is — first and foremost — a tennis story because this five-time champion has a real chance to claim title number six, quite possibly against Serena on Saturday. (She won’t be favored to beat Angelique Kerber, but she’ll certainly have a shot.)

However — and especially if she doesn’t beat Kerber — the larger importance of Venus making the Wimbledon semifinals at age 36 might be this:

The tournament which hasn’t loved Venus as much as it should might finally give her deserved recognition in future years, before she hangs up a racquet which has lifted her to the doorstep of one more Championship Saturday.

Venus Williams: Wimbledon’s real-life love story





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