It is now just painful to watch Venus Williams. It used to be joyful. She can play as well as she ever did, but can’t do it two days in a row. Or two minutes in a row. Or, if she can, then you don’t know which two days, which two minutes.
She doesn’t either.
Williams lost in the first round of the Australian Open on Sunday, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Ekaterina Makarova. The easy narrative is that Williams is 33, and that all of the things that come with old age in tennis are now coming to her.
But it isn’t that easy. And that’s part of what makes it so painful watching someone who has meant so much to the game and done it so elegantly for so long.
Williams has completely modernized her game. Yes, at 33. Her serve and forehand don’t look the same as they used to.
She slaps at them now with a looping follow-through, rather than using the old, classic fluid arm movements. Her backhand is different, too. She was slicing forehands at times, mixing up shots. She hit dropshots.
She has never done any of this. Think of the want-to it takes to do it now, when she could so easily blame her slide on age, and on Sjogren’s syndrome, which causes fatigue.
“The last 12 months I have had issues,’’ she said after her match. “But this year, I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well.’’
It is typical of her to speak so vaguely about her health or injuries. She also said that health is a “factor for any professional athlete, so I don’t think I’m any different from anyone else.’’
This is a courageous fight she won’t even talk about. After watching that match Sunday, I’m convinced it’s the autoimmune disease that’s beating her.
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