When Venus Williams takes to the court in 2012, she will do so with very little talk of titles and contention. That isn’t meant as a slight to the seven-time grand slam champion, who alongside her sister has dominated the women’s game for over 10 years. It is more a tribute to Williams’ resilience, commitment, and longevity, traits that have allowed her to be a powerful force in tennis for over fifteen years, introducing a new standard of athleticism and intensity that simply had not been seen before she turned pro in 1994.
But that athleticism has come at a price. Williams’ biggest foe over the past few years has not been so much the rest of the WTA field, but her body. Only able to compete in three of the four grand slams in 2011, and forced to retire with injury in two of them, Williams was finally diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease, during the US Open in September. The disease, which affects an individual’s gland production, resulting in dry eyes and mouth and arthritis, sidelined Williams for the remainder of the 2011 season, a season that never saw the 31 year-old in full flight.
Yet given the current state of the women’s game, Williams, a former number one with seven grand slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal to her name, can’t be completely discounted. She has shown an amazing ability to rebound from injury and drops in form to find her legs at the most sudden of times. Her grace and class was never highlighted more than when she took to the quiet grass at Wimbledon. It never mattered what her form was like heading into the All England Club. Rather remarkably, Williams was always able to summon her best when playing for the dish that bore her name, reaching the Wimbledon final eight times in the last ten years and hoisting the Venus Rosewater Dish five times since 2000. With two major competitions taking place on her beloved Wimbledon grounds in 2012, Williams has a true opportunity to make a streaky run to re-establish herself as a force to be reckoned with at the biggest competitions on the largest stages. But priority number one is getting healthy.
With a game built around a monstrous serve that is second only to her sister’s booming and effortless power, a healthy Venus Williams is always a threat and one of the best in the game. In her first tournament back from a five-month lay-off, Williams made a valiant run to the quarter-finals at Eastbourne last year, beating Andrea Petkovic and Ana Ivanovic along the way. While the American seems content to play a powerful but uneven baseline game on every other surface, she effortlessly flips a switch on grass. Single-mindedly convinced that she must get to the net to make use of her wingspan and athletic ability, all aspects of her game fall into place. Her big first serve sets up a short return that she can attack and come in behind, putting pressure on opponents to make near impossible passing shots. That attacking mindset allows her to keep points short and thus less demanding on her body and it will serve her well as she looks to make an impact in 2012.
As much as Williams has been missed on court, the sport has missed her voice and influence off-court as well. Sartorial choices aside (who can forget the outrage caused by her flesh-colored underpants at Roland Garros in 2010), Williams has been the epitome of grace and class throughout her career. It’s an aspect that is oft-overlooked, in favor, perhaps, of her younger sister’s dramatic and controversial antics. But through her 17-year career, Williams has grown to be a strong and unflinching voice for women’s tennis and gender and racial equality.
In 2006, taking her cues from Billie Jean King, who has tirelessly and relentlessly campaigned for gender equality, Williams defiantly and publicly called out Wimbledon for its refusal to provide equal prize money to both the men and women. Her comments, which included an essay published in The Times accusing Wimbledon of being on the “wrong side of history”, brought the issue to the fore. Less than a year later, both Wimbledon and Roland Garros changed their policy and announced they would award equal prize money. As if the script could be written any better, Williams won Wimbledon that very year. As a new generation of women begin to take control of the WTA, Williams’ off-court presence is needed even more. The Wozniackis, Azarenkas, and Kvitovas of the world need a strong elder stateswoman to model themselves after.
But for now it is a waiting game, and any positive signs shown over the off-season were quickly dashed upon news that Williams’ participation in Melbourne is questionable. After finding herself fit enough to play a few exhibitions during the winter season, Williams announced her withdrawal from a lead-up tournament in Auckland in December.
“I was surprised with how I played because I expected to be a lot worse, but it was great to be out there,” Williams told the Barbados Advocate during an exhibition event in December. “My performance gives me I hope I can play the Australian Open next year. I’m really hoping to keep my fitness heading into 2012, but I’m not going to raise my expectations for any major results.”
The mind and heart are willing but the body is not, and Williams faces an ongoing uphill battle to get healthy while still training to allow herself to compete in a game that revolves around the very power and speed that she introduced years ago. For now, stepping onto the court and competing is a sure-fire victory. The longer she remains sidelined the more retirement rumors will grow from mere whispers to chatter, but that will only add fuel to the fire. As I have come to learn watching both Venus and Serena through the years, when it comes to the Williams sisters, expecting the unexpected is the name of the game.
Courtney Nguyen is Sports Illustrated’s tennis blogger. Read her words of wisdom at Beyond the Baseline (http://tennis.si.com/)