At the turn of the millennium, as the 2000 tennis season arrived, Venus Williams was nowhere to be seen. She was the third-best player in the world and just 19, but for three months she had withdrawn from all tournaments, citing a wrist injury. By March, a curious rumour began to spread: people wondered if she was on the verge of retirement. The rumours soon reached her family, which they responded to by simply tossing a gallon of petrol all over the flames: “I would like to see her retire now. I would love to see her do that,” said her father and coach, Richard Williams. He argued that tennis careers are short and a greater future awaited her as an entrepreneur. Serena, her sister, was coy: “Rumour has it she’s retiring,” she said, smiling. “I have the inside information. Unfortunately, I’m not able to release that.”
It seems absurd now given Williams’s enduring career, but this talking point was a reflection of the times. It was partly because, a few months earlier, a hooded Williams watched bitterly as her younger sister leapfrogged her to win the US Open, a failure that seemed to hang over her until she disappeared in 2000. More significantly, both sisters were often criticised for having too many outside interests, not competing in enough events and withdrawing from tournaments at a whim. While their ability was never in question, so much discussion centred around whether they were truly committed like their peers.
Instead of retiring, Williams returned from her six-month lay-off transformed. She shed the beads from her hair and she strutted around the court on a mission. Four tournaments into her comeback, one of the great summers in tennis began as she won Wimbledon, the US Open and two Olympic gold medals and compiled a 35-match winning streak. It was a tone-setter for the rest of their careers – the first of many comebacks to follow.
This year, before coronavirus tore the calendar apart, Williams was struggling. She had not won a match since September and she started the year with three losses, including a second sour defeat to Coco Gauff, then aged 15, at the Australian Open. On the court, her movement was laboured, her strokes had lost their potency and opponents she once would have brushed aside now hit her clean off the court. By March, her record was 0-3 in 2020 and she was ranked 67th. Although few were willing to say it aloud given how frequently she has made people eat their own words, it was fair to wonder whether she had any more sustained quality tennis to give.
Venus often tends to fade into the background behind her more extroverted and celebrated sister, but she was ubiquitous on social media throughout the quarantine period. Her interview with recently retired Caroline Wozniacki was particularly important.
Williams has lived with Sjogren’s syndrome since 2004 and Wozniacki navigated the final years of her career with rheumatoid arthritis. They discussed living with their auto-immune diseases, at times not even being able to get out of bed and the struggle of even just trying to obtain a diagnosis. While some doctors thought Wozniacki was “crazy”, it took seven years of Williams’s life and career to figure out why she was so exhausted: “I went through doctors telling me that maybe I should see a psychiatrist,” she said, sighing. “Sometimes I want to write them back. If you don’t know what’s wrong, just say ‘I don’t know.’”
Behind the scenes, away from the camera, she was still doing the work. Williams arrived at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky this week having reconstructed her game with her relatively new coach, Eric Hechtman. Her serve, renowned for its revolutionary power but also a flawed motion, has been remodelled as an abbreviated, simpler swing. Her forehand has been transformed into a whippier, more compact and modern stroke. It is an astounding effort. Even for a malleable, ambitious teenager, such changes would require long practices, endless banal drills and an enormous leap of faith to trust the changes. Williams had never previously made a significant change to any stroke, but she is still doing all she can to be successful.
In Lexington, Williams eviscerated former No 1 Victoria Azarenka in the first round before she lost her 31st meeting with Serena 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in an intense, competitive match. It was comfortably the best level she has exhibited in more than a year and it offered hope for her fans that, at 40 years old and after 26 years as a professional, there are still more good days to come. It is too early to tell what is next, but perhaps that is irrelevant. More important is the simple example of an athlete who, after so many years and obstacles, has retained the joy required to step on the court every day with the aim of being as good as she can be.