No epic yet at Finals, but at least a classic player

A jubilant Venus Williams after beating Garbine Muguruza 7-5, 6-4 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Oct 26, 2017 to qualify for the semi-finals of the WTA Finals.
A jubilant Venus Williams after beating Garbine Muguruza 7-5, 6-4 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Oct 26, 2017 to qualify for the semi-finals of the WTA Finals. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The great match in our overwrought imaginations should resemble a gladiator flick, with a degree of violence and a hint of desolation. The great match is what we seek every day and yet it is understandably rare for it requires the synchronicity of many things, of timing, rhythm, form, will, all at an appointed hour.

The great match is a gift and yet it has been elusive at the WTA Finals. Ten matches have been played between the world's eight best women players resulting in two 6-0 sets, one 6-1 set and seven 6-2 sets. Epic does not come to mind. Not even when Venus Williams beat Garbine Muguruza 7-5, 6-4 last night for a place in the semi-finals and together collected 68 unforced errors.

There has been too much talk of No. 1 and yet nobody is quite playing like one. Perhaps they are all too tired, too edgy, too emotionally flat or, if we're a little less generous, in some cases just not hungry enough.

And yet sport cannot be just about the great match. Because sport is also about winning ugly, chances lost and worn-out bodies. It is about loneliness worn and fear fought. It is about appreciating you can't be great every day and yet trying to win every day when you're not great. It is about running through pain, finding your way and staying alive in a tournament.

It is about struggle. And this is what Williams did at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Her tennis wasn't great but gritty, it was uneven and yet unyielding, it was not brilliant and yet in its own way becoming. Because she kept going. She hit seven double faults but kept pushing. She was broken first to 3-4 but didn't back off. Then, finally, she hit a backhand cross-court, so low, so fast, so worthy of hanging in a museum, that it was Muguruza who wilted.

 

Venus is one of those athletes we measure our lives against: Where were we when she first arrived in the game? In 1997, when she first played Martina Hingis in singles, Muguruza was three years old. Now it is 2017, and Muguruza is 24, and Hingis announced yesterday that she is retiring from doubles play, and still Venus plays singles. You are required to be amazed.

Williams had a press conference the other day and spoke 34 words in total. One might say she was as brusque as her down-the-line forehands. Last night she was again remote off court and yet impossible not to admire on it. To her game she brings devotion and perhaps she feels it is all she owes tennis any more. Perhaps she believes she has helped sell the game and now all she wants to do is play it.

On CNBC TV the other day - where in contrast she was amusing and chatty - she noted that "you have to see something as a challenge and not as an obstacle". It sounded like something clever from a self-help book, except that in the second set she demonstrated it. Three times Muguruza broke her and so four times Venus broke her. It wasn't always pretty and yet she was beautifully persistent.

Venus is one of those athletes we measure our lives against: Where were we when she first arrived in the game? In 1997, when she first played Martina Hingis in singles, Muguruza was three years old. Now it is 2017, and Muguruza is 24, and Hingis announced yesterday that she is retiring from doubles play, and still Venus plays singles. You are required to be amazed.

It's been a year of 30-plus athletes who are redefining boundaries for all of us: Of course it's about science, training, fame, nutrition, money but also about a plain, dogged love of a game. There's that Federer fellow at 36, quarterback Tom Brady who is 40, Cristiano Ronaldo who is stacking up awards at 32 and Sally Pearson who made a majestic hurdles comeback at 31.

Now the 37-year-old Venus, twice a Grand Slam finalist this year, in her 23rd year on tour, is in the semi-finals of the WTA Finals. Imagine that. Applaud it.

Later, as the night wound down, she was asked what part of tennis still remains fun for her and one word sufficed as an answer.

"Wins," she said.

Now she has 774 of them. Every one counts. Even if they aren't always great.