Late on a grey, cold day, she entered the court with the same rocking step that tennis fans have come to recognise over the course of the last quarter century. She did some quick upper-body stretches with her tennis bag on her shoulder and an elastic band.
At the age of 43, Venus Williams returned to Centre Court at Wimbledon on Monday, hoping to make history by becoming one of the oldest women to win a main draw singles match at the sport’s oldest Grand Slam tournament. Williams has won Wimbledon’s singles title five times and reached the finals nine times.
That did not happen today. As a result, she was left with a limp, an emblem of two incontestable realities of modern tennis.
The first is that, with to advancements in training, diet, and remuneration, players are able to extend their careers farther than ever before, into their late 30s and, in the case of the Williams sisters, their early 40s. After having two children and retiring from tennis in 2020, former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, 32, revealed this month that she was returning to the sport.
The second is that, unless your name is Novak Djokovic, it’s tough to remain fit and win in this physically demanding sport in your late 30s and early 40s.
On Monday, the opening day of Wimbledon, the All England Club was filled with senior citizens, and not only in the television booths. Williams took centre court after Djokovic, at age 36, had started his routine championship defence with a straight sets victory against the Argentine Pedro Cachn. While John Isner, 38, of the United States fell in four sets to Spain’s Jaume Munar on Court 16, 38-year-old Stan Wawrinka, also of the United States, was delivering a clinic to 24-year-old Finland’s Emil Ruusuvuori on Court 18.
After aggravating an injury on her right knee early in the match, Williams fell short in a 6-4, 6-3 defeat to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina. When Williams took an early lead and it seemed like an old guard victory was in the cards, she never recovered to that level again. Williams, now ranked 558th in the world, upset top-50 player Camila Giorgi of Italy in a third-set tiebreaker last month in Birmingham, England.
Williams was able to enter Wimbledon as a wild card thanks to her victory, and she went on to win five times in nine attempts between 2000 and 2008. She reached the final of the women’s singles tournament as recently as 2017, and she shows no signs of slowing down.
Williams came out serving and lacing strong, flat shots to the back of the court, despite the sloppy grass caused by a midafternoon rain storm and the dampness that persisted in the air throughout the day. In the second game, she was able to break Svitolina’s serve. Williams was up a break point in the third game, but she stormed the goal instead, screaming as she fell to the ground clutching her bandaged right knee.
For many minutes, Williams remained on the ground with Svitolina propping up her head with a towel. Williams’s day seemed to be over at that point. She hobbled over to her trainer’s chair, but she did it nevertheless. After then, she had far less freedom of movement than she did in the previous two games.
She staggered from point to point, unable to serve with the same force that has always been her trademark because of the need to push and twist with her lower body. Her early 115 mph first serve slowed to the mid-90s as the match progressed.
There was a strange sense of déjà vu about the way things unfolded. Her older sister Serena, now 39, attempted to win her seventh Wimbledon championship by taking the same first-round match on the same court two years ago. Serena Williams was only able to play six games before she had to retire with an ankle ailment.
At the outset of what may have been her last summer of professional tennis, Serena Williams returned to Wimbledon last year. On a night that seemed like a goodbye, she was eliminated in the first round.
What stood out about Venus Williams’s match on Monday was not that she won, but rather how little it seemed like a valedictory and how defiant she appeared in the face of the inevitable decline that ageing brings to every athlete.
She was fuming with the match’s outcome. Svitolina had match point when she smashed a ball that was first ruled out, but the chair umpire awarded it to her when the Hawk-Eye technology confirmed it was in. Since Williams’s return had gone out of bounds, the umpire decided not to retry the point.
She said the injury was so excruciating it had stopped her from thinking clearly. She said she will have her knee tested on Tuesday but that she had never contemplated quitting. She had just recovered from a hamstring injury she sustained at the beginning of the year when she began discussing how hard it was to deal with yet another ailment.