Sporting Life

Sporting Life: Even in defeat, Venus leaves us with a memory

She's like the old oak in the garden, the tough jeans in your closet, the ancient wine in the cabinet, the roughed-up Stradivarius in its case. She's (athletically) old, scarred, tough and resilient. She's Venus Williams and she's one of those wonderful, rare things in life which age very well.

Yes, she lost 4-6, 4-6 yesterday, and Caroline Wozniacki wouldn't slow down for her, and all her extra exertion this week - over two hours more on court than the Dane - had to eventually hurt her.

But you should have heard the crowd pleading towards the end at the WTA Finals: "Come on, Venus." You should have seen that forehand she hooked cross-court to pass Wozniacki to break to 4-5 after trailing 0-5 in the second set. You should have heard the roar that followed. You should have felt that particular electricity that only sport or a rare musician can produce.

At 37, Venus Williams can still play. At 37, Venus Williams must be mad. Because if athletes play to win titles then she hasn't won one all year. Because if sport is about seizing chances then she hasn't been able to hold on to them.

What she's been instead is close. Brilliantly, agonisingly, brutally close. Close to trophies. Close to history. Close to winning her first Major title since 2008.

Close enough to keep believing it's possible and yet so close it must hurt. In January, she's in the Australian Open final. In July the Wimbledon final. In October the WTA Finals. Summer and autumn, it doesn't matter, she loses them all. This isn't the season of Venus Williams.

And yet how can you say this isn't the year of Venus Williams. This is the first year since 2009 she's been in a Grand Slam final. This is the year she started at No. 17 and is finishing at No. 5 and in between she has spanked Jelena Ostapenko, 20; Garbine Muguruza, 24; Caroline Garcia, 24; Coco Vandeweghe, 25; Johanna Konta, 26; and Petra Kvitova, 27. This is the year of renewal and possibility and an ageing athlete saying don't-you-bloody-dare-forget-me. We're listening.

At 37, Venus Williams can still play. At 37, Venus Williams must be mad. Because if athletes play to win titles then she hasn't won one all year. Because if sport is about seizing chances then she hasn't been able to hold onto them. What she's been instead is close.

And so she didn't win last night but she left us a small shard of memory by producing four games of startling obstinacy. Four games which showed us what pride looks like. Four games which were proof of how much athletes care, even on their most uneven nights. Four games that she won when 0-5 down in the second set.

"Two men climb into the ring from which only one, symbolically, will climb out," wrote Joyce Carol Oates on boxing. At 0-5 down, Venus was almost on the canvas which is when she started throwing punches, fighting to stay alive, slapping a series of forehands, varying her serve, and once stretching for a forehand return that was a piece of reflex and instinct and genius. It was at once heroic and too late.

Next year will be harder for she'll be older and tennis will probably be younger, but it's fortunate that athletes don't breathe oxygen, only positivity. They see beginnings where we only find endings. Raymond Chandler started writing detective fiction at 44 so why can't she win a Slam at 38? Of course writers don't run out of time so quickly, but to tell her that is to limit her dreams.

Venus will be sore but she knows defeat, she's lost 222 matches as a professional, she's been outplayed in four successive Grand Slam finals, back in 2002-03. Life's knocked her around, as it did yesterday, and when the last point was over she sat almost motionless in her chair, a solitary, slumped, deflated figure.

And then she got up because it's what athletes do. They find a smile, give speeches, pack and go home. They mope, swear, cry and then suture their wounds and reach for their rackets. Somewhere down the road there will be another chance.

Won't there?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Even in defeat, Venus leaves us with a memory'. Print Edition | Subscribe