When Venus Williams emerged from the tunnel at Arthur Ashe Stadium into the sun on Tuesday afternoon, the stands were half empty. Carlo Alcaraz, the third seed in the men’s draw, had just won his first-round match. A phenomenon expected to one day win multiple Majors, Alcaraz was born in 2003, six years after Williams reached her first final in New York. The night before, Venus’ sister Serena had played the first match of what is expected to be the last US Open final tournament, of her career, in front of a record-breaking crowd. Billie Jean King showed up to sing Serena’s praises. Oprah shared a montage of Serena’s accomplishments. Beyoncé directed a Gatorade commercial to celebrate Serena’s career. Bill Clinton was spotted in the stands chatting to Dr. Ruth.
When Venus won her first US Open title more than two decades ago, Clinton, then President of the United States, called to congratulate her. He had missed the game; He had been in the men’s semifinals but the rain delayed the start of the women’s final and he didn’t last. “So what happened?” Williams asked the President. “Where did you go?” Even then, one had the feeling that she really didn’t care whether the President was present or not. (He said he should have gone home for dinner.) But she knew her worth and wasn’t afraid to say it.
She still knows; one look at her on Tuesday could tell you that. She wore large gold hoop earrings, a navy blue visor, and a forest green crop top and skirt with white piping that were as clean as a baseline. Her bare stomach was chiseled. Her face was a carved stone. With her usual calm and composure, she went to the coin toss. Just a vigorous little shake of her clubhead revealed the fast-twitching ferocity beneath the sleek exterior.
The lack of ceremonies was unsurprising, even appropriate – the tournament could hardly throw a retirement party for a player who has pushed aside talk of retirement for decades. A winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, Williams is one of the greatest players of all time and one of the most influential. In the last few years of her career she has played proudly, but quietly and often on the outdoor courts. It’s not that she doesn’t mind—she has something against it—but her attitude has always been that she doesn’t need the limelight to deserve one.
Winning the coin toss, Williams shook her long legs a little looser and headed to the baseline to warm up. She’s forty-two now. After a year’s absence from the tour, she is ranked 1,504 in the world due to injury. On the other side of the net was Alison Van Uytvanck, a redheaded Belgian at number 43. Van Uytvanck is an unusual player who uses a lot of slices. She was favored but not invulnerable: by the time she got into the match, she had lost all but one of her previous nine first-round US Open appearances and lost her last three straight matches. However, Williams had only played four games in total since Wimbledon last summer and hadn’t won any of them. Lately she has been coached by the pro at her local tennis club in Miami.
Her long absence from court was evident from the start. Her serve, once the tour’s most powerful and precise weapon, was capable of speeds no woman had consistently achieved before – “one hundred and twenty,” every time, as her old rival Lindsay Davenport said during the match’s broadcast – failed, mostly to hit his points. Their hard, flat groundstrokes, especially on the backhand side, were mistimed, hitting the center of the net, or sailing long. She lost the lively first set 6-1.
It’s an uneasiness, sometimes even a kind of second-hand embarrassment, to watch a beloved champion far from his best – think Willie Mays stumbling in outfield and losing a fly ball in the sun. Williams once called the sport “triumph and disaster witnessed in real time”. She added, “You can’t fake it.” What you can fake is immortality, but only for so long.
Still embarrassing? Not Venus. At the start of the second set, her serve started clicking. Her open backhand began to solidify, her legs forming a stable base. She smashed her forehands down the line and on the run. Her long legs swallowed the ground. She won the second set to the tiebreak before losing it and the match. “It’s just rust in the end,” she said afterwards. “There’s nothing you can do about that, other than not being rusty at some point.” A reporter asked her what she’s been up to after all this time. “Three letters,” she replied. “WIN. That’s it. Very simple.”
Inevitably, she’d already been asked if she was planning to retire — or, as Serena put it to herself, in one essay to the Fashionto “evolve” away from the sport. “I’m just concentrating on the doubles,” Williams replied.
There is no Serena without Venus, as everyone including Serena and Venus will tell you. Venus brought tennis kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Venus, with her speed and her big serve, with her pearls and her bravery and her bright smile. Everyone now knows how Venus protected Serena, how she took the brunt of racism and opposition, how she shielded her little sister, how she followed the rules so Serena could land like a stick of dynamite, how she publicly was and was successful, urged Wimbledon to offer men and women equal pay.
I can only remember one time Venus lost her composure during a game. It was at the Australian Open in 1999 that a strand of her pearls broke and rattled around the court, and she was docked by a point. “I’m not disturbing you here!” she said, more insistent than angry. “No one is disturbed!” (“But tennis was disturbed,” Elizabeth Weil wrote a few years ago in an excellent profile of Williams.) In 2004 she lost a match at Wimbledon to Karolina Šprem 7-6 (7-5) 7-6 (8-6) after the referee called out the wrong score in Tiebreak the second set and give Šprem an extra point. “I’d like to think that one point doesn’t make a difference,” Venus said, gracious as ever after losing that tiebreak by two points. The generations of tennis stars that have come since – especially black women like Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys – had to follow Serena. Serena had Venus. Venus got her faith in God – she is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness – in her parents’ vision, in herself. “I’m tall. I’m black. Everything about me is different. Just face the facts,” said Venus in 1997 at the age of seventeen She made the form.
It is therefore tempting to imagine how we might see Venus without Serena. Eventually, in addition to the seven Grand Slams that Venus won, she lost seven finals to her younger sister. When Serena left the tour to have a child in 2017, Venus reached the final at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the US Open, returning to the top five. She was thirty-seven years old.
Williams released one last year op ed in which Times In it, she described how, early in Venus’ career, her mother Oracene advised her to take care of her “whole self,” not just her body but her mind as well. “What my mom told me that day in Oakland was that none of those elements of winning would work if I didn’t also take care of my mental health. I needed to live a balanced life and not just identify as a tennis player,” Williams wrote. “Although I began to find success as a young professional, I needed to remain committed to my education, remain committed to my religion, and enjoy the experience of improvement—not be so driven that I would miss out on everything.” This mindset helps explain why the Williams sisters took so many lengthy breaks from the tour that they were criticized for. They went to fashion school, founded companies. (Venus has a streetwear line, EleVen, whose clothes she wears on the pitch; she also has an interior design business that mostly caters to corporate clients.) Perhaps it also explains why Venus was able to extend her career despite being diagnosed in 2011 with Sjogren’s Syndrome , an autoimmune disease that can make them lack energy and flare up suddenly; she takes care of herself.
Watching Williams earlier this week with her lapidary grace and impenetrable expression, I thought that might explain something else as well. To a degree I’ve rarely seen in another person, and perhaps never in a prominent athlete, Williams seems to have reserved and protected her self. Behind the calm facade lies an inner workings that are revealed in chills and outbursts of passionate, athletic intensity. She never sold herself in any way. “I think I was born to play this game. I really do,” she said said, a few years ago. “I’m blessed enough to do something I love and I think that was my calling because I’ve grown big and big enough to cover the court and hit hard.”
What would Williams be without Serena? It’s an interesting question to ponder for a moment, but ultimately beside the point. She would be herself and her self is a sister. On Tuesday, after her defeat, she was asked about her hopes and expectations for the doubles tournament. (She and Serena have fourteen Grand Slam doubles titles together and are perfect 14-0 in the final.) “More than anything, I just want to claim my side of the court and be a good sister,” she said. On Thursday night, in prime time, she and Serena appeared in court together for what is almost certainly the last time. They lost a tight, entertaining first set to a Czech team – there were volleys to the body and returns slammed into the lanes – and fought back in the second before losing 7-6(5), 6-4 . They gathered their things and left the place together to a standing ovation. Venus has always defined her terms, and there’s more than one way to win. ♦