Despite many players on both the men’s and women’s events of the Australian Open dominating conversation among fans and the media at one point or another during the early stages of the fortnight, one player reminded everyone yesterday that she has the power to upstage them all – Venus Williams.
At the beginning of her second round match yesterday against young Czech player Sandra Zahlavova, it was Williams’s latest on-court fashion creation that threatened to upstage the entire match. Then, when Zahalvova, who most tennis fans had likely never seen play before, equaled Williams’s own trademark screams when hitting the ball stroke for stroke, that vocal display between both women became the next hot topic of the day with even Andy Murray weighing in on his Twitter account.
But as Zahalavova found herself in a first set tiebreak and appeared close to winning it, another scream from Williams when she lunged for a ball stopped all talk.
Because it was one of pure pain.
After losing the first set tiebreak, Williams, who looked close to tears, walked off court to receive a medical timeout. When she returned with her groin area taped up, many expected Williams to walk over, shake Zahalavova’s hand and call it a day.
But really, the match was just beginning.
Instead, Williams returned to the court and resumed play. Her appearance at the baseline shocked everyone, including Zahalavova who apparently couldn’t get over the sight of Williams back on court and promptly handed Williams the next six games and the second set. To her credit, Zahalavova did recover and resumed her stellar play from the first set while Williams battled on as if nothing had happened earlier. Williams managed to break Zahalavova for a 4-3 lead and then after double faulting on her first match point, summoned another service winner to close out the match, and the whole drama, 6-7(6), 6-0, 6-4.
Afterwards, Williams told Tom Rinaldi of ESPN, that she felt a “sharp, acute pain” and had to go off court “to calm myself down”. When she was asked if she thought about retiring, something Williams has never done during a Grand Slam match in her entire career, Williams said the thought never crossed her mind, adding, “I wanted to go to the bitter end. It was pretty bitter at times but it didn’t end.”
Williams’s performance reminded me of her sister, Serena, who is absent at this year AO, and who herself has dealt with an on-court injury to comeback from almost losing a match plenty of times. The question now is, can Venus, who later said the injury was to her psoas (a muscle near the pelvis) recover in time to face Andrea Petkovic in the third round and then a possible much anticipated encounter with Maria Sharapova in the fourth round.
But the conversation around Williams and her health, her status as the lone American woman left in the AO draw and the questions on how long she will remain on the tour all circled back, and probably appropriately in a way, to her dress. When asked about the inspiration behind it, Williams said, “Oh, the outfit is inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Yeah, don’t laugh. But it’s kind of about a surprise, because when Alice goes down the hole, the rabbit hole, she finds all these things that are so surprising.”
And that to me was probably the best way to sum up the entire day. From her dress, to her comeback, to the way she somehow, after being in sheer pain for over two hours, still found a way to smile and wave for the camera after the match, Venus Williams, after 16 years in the public eye, continues to surprise and engage sports fans around the world. Williams proved that although many think her tennis career is near its end, it may be that like Alice, our adventure with Venus is just beginning.