The tennis gods like to give aging superstars one last good-bye run. Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras. It’s a graceful way out. And it’s something about luck mixed with wringing out the last drops of greatness mixed with making adjustments to account for what has been lost.
Everything sort of comes together at the same time. And that brings me to Venus Williams, who is suddenly relevant again, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after beating sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska Monday 6-3, 2-6, 6-1. Williams was excellent, awful, excellent. In that order.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure this is a one-last-run thing. Someone forgot to tell Venus this is her farewell tour. That’s what I was thinking it was.
Now I’m thinking it’s her comeback tour. But know this: I could be way off. It’s too close to tell.
“For me, it’s all about the title,” Williams, who’s 34, told ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez, who had asked about her feelings of getting deep into a major again. “It’s not about a good showing anymore. I’m past that time.”
Venus, who hasn’t been this deep in a major since 2010, doesn’t understand the nostalgia.
It’s just hard to know exactly what we’re seeing. It might be luck: The first top player she faced in Australia is Radwanska, one of the few high-ranked players Williams can overpower.
And maybe her body is just in a good cycle now with her Sjogren’s syndrome, which steals her energy. Her fight against that is permanent.
Or she might have found the right diet and medication. Or, she could take the court against Madison
Keys in the quarters and be standing there without one bit of energy.
Williams says she’s feeling better and that she has been able to practice. She feels like a fulltime player again instead of an on-again, off-again one.
About three years ago during a Fed Cup tie in Worcester, Mass, Venus told me this: “I don’t know if I will ever feel normal again. I don’t know if I ever will.”
Because of the Sjogren’s, she was searching for a new normal. Since then, she hasn’t done much. It has been painful watching her, because she also started to get old and lose her nerve. And she could be awful.
“Always believe in yourself,” she told Fernandez Monday, “and I never feel I’m defeated even if I’ve lost.”
I think Williams has found her new normal. If this is how her body is going to feel, then I don’t see why she can’t be a viable, valuable player for three more years. By that, I mean she can have runs deep in majors. She is not going to be as good as she was when she was young.
Williams is a mystery, and that’s partly because she can be so secretive about her health. A day or two after she told me about never feeling normal again, her agent called and said she was worried about what she had divulged to me and what I would write.
But now, she says she has changed her diet and her practice schedule, with shorter, more intense workouts.
If this is a one-time thing, then why has her ranking been climbing? She is back up to No. 18. And why did she win her first tournament of the year, beating Caroline Wozniacki?
Venus is moving so well, too, with better all those little adjustment steps and not those big gangly strides. That is the most amazing thing. Williams doesn’t seem to be adapting to old age.
Now, this isn’t going to be the setup when Williams plays Keys. It’s the old-young thing. Keys, who’s 19, started playing when she was and saw how Venus was dressed on TV.
It is actually amazing how much Williams has meant toward getting people into the game: her background, race, style. And all those Wimbledon titles, of course.
Both players are already being portrayed as if they are just happy to get to this match. Both have denied they feel that way. Keys is strong enough to stand up to Williams. But she’s still so inconsistent. And Williams? It’s just hard to predict how she’ll feel, or where her consistency will be
I’ll take Venus. The tennis gods can come back later. She’s not ready for their kindness just yet.