I couldn’t even look.
It’s 2014, but Venus Williams and Petra Kvitova–the Venus from 2008 and the Petra from 2011–were involved in a tight third set at Wimbledon. It was no-holds-barred, go-for-broke, lights out tennis. This match, if it was the final, would be lauded as one of the best ever. (It wouldn’t take the crown, but it would have started that conversation.)
But, much to my dismay, this wasn’t a final. This was a third-round battle between two former champions, and it was Venus’s best chance at making it to the second week of a major in three years.
But as the third set eked on, I knew that it was Petra’s match. The margins were razor-thin, and Venus was a hair better in the first half, while Petra was a hair better as it went on. I could see the future. I’d been here before.
So I had to walk away. Cook some lunch. Turn off Twitter. It was just too much.
It had been a while since I’d felt that level of frazzle–likely the Sabine Lisicki/Agnieszka Radwanska semifinal here last year. Since Roddick retired and I started writing on a mostly full-time basis, it just doesn’t happen.
But I couldn’t stay away. It was too good. I listened to the TV and ran back for the big moments. I rewound the DVR to make sure I caught everything. It was unnerving and somewhat heartbreaking to watch, knowing how it would end, but it was also captivating.
This was everything I could hope for. Petra Kvitova, all too often erratic and underperforming, was showing the full range of her potential. And, even more impressively, the legendary Venus Williams was playing at the highest level, despite the fact that she’s a 34-year-old with a bad back and Sjogren’s Syndrome. Even when I saw Venus double fault to lose the match, I couldn’t help but be proud.
Hewitt ended up losing the match 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (7-9), 4-6, 6-3, but not without creating some more fireworks at Wimbledon.
These questions didn’t stay anonymous in nature, either. Both press conferences had a distinct undertone: Do you really still think you can still be great? Why are you still putting yourself through this? When are you hanging it up?
Hewitt admitted that he was likely one big injury away from retirement, but he has no plans to pull the plug in the meantime. “I still enjoy doing the hard work. For moments out there like today, to play five‑setters against the best guys in the world.”
“I’m not getting out of here.”
Venus is right — in tennis, we do try to push away our champions the second they show a modicum of age. Out with the old and in with the new.
There’s this misguided fantasy that the only way to go out the “right way” is when you’re on top. Champions aren’t supposed to overstay their welcome. Nobody wants to see them when they’re anything less than their best.
But really, how boring is that? What can you tell about the character and resolve of an athlete when everything is going his or her way?
So many athletes are afraid of the fall. They have egos so big that if the number by their names doesn’t match the number in their heads, they are out. Maybe they fight for a year or two, but then they’re done. For those, it’s all about winning.
Truthfully, that’s fine. Everybody is different.
However, there’s something heroic about what Venus and Lleyton are doing, squeezing every ounce of competitive tennis out of their bodies until it’s all gone. They’re not scared of their own mortality. They’re not scared of being less than.
They may not like it, but they’re willing to both fight against and savor their downfall.
Venus hasn’t won a major in six years, since Wimbledon in 2008. In that time, she has announced her diagnosis of Sjogren’s Syndrome, suffered multiple injury layoffs, and seen her younger sister win nine major titles.
Thirty-four isn’t just older in tennis, it’s elderly. But Venus isn’t irrelevant in her current state. After a long layoff in 2011 and 2012 when she was first diagnosed with Sjogren’s, her ranking had fallen all the way to No. 134. She is projected to be ranked No. 25 after Wimbledon, a spot she’s had to fight tooth-and-nail for over the past two years. She’s made two finals and won one title in 2014, and all of her losses except one this year have been three-set nailbiters.
Just because she’s won five Wimbledon titles and two U.S. Opens doesn’t mean that her accomplishments over the past few years should be any less extraordinary. In fact, I think it makes them more so.
“I think she’s playing really, really well,” Kvitova said after their match last week. “She showed it as well today. I think that she can win some titles again.”
Most impressively? She doesn’t feel one bit sorry for herself.
“I want to win Grand Slams. Everybody does. You don’t get ’em,” she told the press after her loss to Kvitova. “Look at what happened today. No one gives it to you. They snatch it away and say, Mine. That’s what I’ll have to do is snatch it, say, Mine, too, growl if need be.
“That’s what it takes.”
Hewitt has a similar resolve. The formerly arrogant upstart became No. 1 and won a major when he was 20 years old, but hasn’t won on the big stage since Wimbledon 2002. His last major final was in 2005, and his last quarterfinal was in 2009. He’s had so many surgeries that I’ve lost count, but he keeps coming back for more, even when most of his peers have long hung up their rackets.
“I think in some ways the last couple years I’ve been grateful I’ve been able to come back, especially after the last surgery where I didn’t really think I’d be able to go out there and compete against the guys again,” he said after his loss to Janowicz.
Compete he can. “He’s really, really good player,” Janowicz assured the press. “Doesn’t matter how old is he. In my opinion, he will not finish the career like this. He will still play at least two more years.
“I hope I will not play against him anymore.”
The Australian is projected to be ranked No. 43 after the fortnight. At the beginning of the year, he won a title in front of his hometown crowd, beating Roger Federer in the final.
The time has humbled him, and though the top of the game has passed him by, Rusty appreciates every victory out there much more than he used to.
It’s exhilarating to watch a young player ride a hot streak and play with a steamrolling of confidence, fitness, talent, and naiveté that takes them straight to the top of the tennis world.
But it’s downright inspiring to watch two former No. 1s keep fighting long after their glory days are long over.
A champion isn’t just a champion when he or she is winning majors. A champion remains a champion when he or she is injured, error-prone, or lost. Greatness doesn’t go away, it just sometimes morphs into something different.
And that is why, no matter how agonizing it is to watch a Venus match, no matter how many drawn-out battles she gets herself into and how many times she comes up short in the big moments, I will keep tuning in. Because, honestly, it’s just a treat to get to watch her at all.
Let’s not rush our legends off the stage, tennis fans. Let’s give them a standing ovation until the final curtain goes down. Who knows, we might even be lucky enough to get an encore or two.