From my column in AOL Fanhouse
They booed Venus Williams when she left, hobbling off in pain. I don’t get that. There is no way.
She has fought for years. She has been a consistent and incredible force, a presence in a game that otherwise might have gone unnoticed, a graceful leader and builder of women’s tennis for more than a decade while others have come and gone.
And they booed Venus Williams when she left the Australian Open Friday, after playing just seven points of her third-round match in clear pain.
Be careful, tennis fans. Because the day when she leaves the court for good is approaching. Are you going to boo her then, too?
“At this point, I have peace of mind that I gave everything I had at all points,” she said. “So more than anything, I can’t be disappointed in that aspect.”
That was her goodbye from a tournament, not from her career. And I’m not going to say that she’s done now. She’s not. But she is 30, which is old in tennis, and her body is starting to fall apart. Knee problems hurt her all last year, and now she has torn a groin muscle.
She has played just two tournaments in the past six months. Meanwhile, that’s two more than her sister, Serena, has played. Serena has been out with a foot injury, and has never come clean as to how it happened. Serena is 29.
Some people love the Williams sisters and some are waiting for new leaders for the game. Fine, you don’t have to love everything they do. I don’t, especially some of the things Serena does, such as not trying during tournaments that aren’t majors or making up stories not to go to them.
But you cannot deny how much they have meant for the game. And when they go, who will be these new leaders, anyway?
Kim Clijsters might be catching Serena as the world’s best player, but has already retried once to have a baby, and now says that when she gets pregnant again, she will retire for good.
Justine Henin had bypassed the Williams sisters as a player, but then she retired, too to find life outside of tennis. Now she’s back, and is great again, but nowhere near what she used to be. When she hurt her elbow in July, she considered retiring again.
These are not long-term options for tennis.
Maria Sharapova? Maybe. But that’s asking a lot of a woman who has lost her serve and has had serious shoulder troubles.
And the next generation is led by No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who has marketable looks and solid play. But she plays defensively, waiting for her opponent to hand over matches. That doesn’t work well against top players in majors. She hasn’t even come close to winning one.
“I’m still pretty good, even when I’m injured,” Venus said. “I mean, at the (U.S.) Open, I came pretty close to winning the tournament just on a hope and a prayer and little to no preparation.
“Here, you know, I was grinding. So I’m just going to focus, obviously, on getting healthy and coming back. Because I love tennis and I’ve got a lot of great tennis in me. I love my job, so, no end in sight.”
That sounds great. And it’s true that Venus reached the semis of the U.S. Open after having missed most of the summer. I watched her practice on the grounds of the Open one day, working on wrong-footed forehands on the run, the only way to keep pressure off her bad knee.
But this sounds a little like a superstar in denial about what’s happening to her body. It’s so hard for these all-time great athletes to acknowledge when their bodies won’t do what their minds command anymore.
Williams still does have greatness left in her, and probably could for a couple more years, in decreasing amounts.
She’s still ranked No. 5. But it’s hard to envision her winning another major, and the chances will only be decreasing. This year’s Wimbledon could be her last legit shot.
She’s not consistent enough any more, and not quite good enough to win big matches when she’s not at her best.
On Friday, Williams played Andrea Petkovic. Two days earlier, Williams had hurt herself at the end of the first set, which she lost. She hadn’t been playing well. But after an injury timeout, she came back taped up, and hobbled to a gutsy comeback win.
Williams had never retired from a match in a major championship. That’s a 251-match streak.
In warm-ups Friday, she stood in one place. By the time the match started, she was hoping adrenaline would kick in and overcome pain and immobility.
She said it was overwhelming to think that she would have to play five more matches to win the tournament.
“So it was really just one match at a time, ‘Hey, can I make it one more match?’ ” she said. “Obviously, I just couldn’t.”
Four minutes, 22 seconds. That’s all she lasted. She served the first game, but couldn’t dig in and use her legs. Also, she couldn’t move. Petkovic broke serve.
On the second point of the second game, Williams pushed off her right leg to stretch for a return of serve, and let out a little yelp. She lumbered to the net, and asked for a trainer, putting off quitting as long as possible.
Venus is a stubborn woman.
But two minutes later, she hugged Petkovic, and it was over.
Except for this:
Williams has been drawing attention for the skimpy, sometimes odd, tennis dresses she has designed and worn. But that’s just gossip stuff. The substance of her story, and grace is what’s real.
A grand lady of tennis was hobbling, losing a battle pain, and facing inevitability.
You’ve got to be kidding.
Please read my new tennis blog at gregcouch.com. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch