That was surely the last we will see of Venus in a final
No one likes losing, but it seems American veteran has lost love for the sport that once inspired her
There is a picture on the stairs of the press room at Wimbledon of the champions of 2007 holding their trophies aloft. In their triumph, Roger Federer and Venus Williams look so young, so confident, so certain. For a moment this year, it seemed as if the All England Club might be able to put another picture of the pair of them up alongside it, this time as the winners in 2017.
It would have worked as a lovely parody of those internet memes insisting that you’ll never guess what so-and-so looks like now. Such a portrait would have been some answer: they look like champions.
But then along came Garbine Muguruza. And, in a flurry of forehand pounding, the ladies singles turned out to be no celebration of longevity.
Instead of crowning the oldest winner in Grand Slam history, there was no need to rewrite the record books, not now Wimbledon has a 23-year-old champion.
A deserved, appropriate and proper champion at that. Williams was cast aside with a brutal lack of restraint, pinned to the baseline by her Spanish opponent’s fearsome barrage of shots, losing four service games in a match that was over before you really had time to notice it had started.
“Fight Venus fight,” had been the pained cry from a fan as the grand old lady of the game faced match point. But the fact was, she couldn’t. Age had seemingly withered any ability she had to recover from the lip of defeat.
After it was over, after she had suffered her first ever 6-0 set at Wimbledon, after her first grand slam final since 2008 had ended in compound defeat, she cut a disconsolate figure. As Muguruza fell to her knees in triumph, Williams simply looked down and walked slowly to the net, her shoulders slumped and her lips drawn in a thin, fixed parody of a smile. Defeat, it was clear, is something no one gets used to. Least of all a champion of her pedigree.
Williams first played at the All England Club in 1997, the year Tony Blair became Prime Minister. And yesterday when Mr Blair demonstrated on radio quite how far he had slipped from the centre of the national conversation in the intervening decades, Williams was attempting to roll back the years on Centre Court. Her presence insisted that things could only get better.
Up in the royal box Mary Berry was among those casting an inquisitive eye over proceedings, perhaps alerted by the fact Muguruza had admitted to setting fire to her dinner earlier in the week. As the finalists walked out on court, it was evident that Williams was for once the favourite here. The woman who was initially greeted with suspicion on the pristine lawns of SW19 was hugely applauded, time clearly altering assumptions.
Her hair towered up in a Marge Simpson bun, Williams began with a flourish. Her first point, won with a fiery double-handed backhand, was greeted with a whoosh of anticipation. We were in for a bit of time travel, that shot suggested, it was like the clock had been turned back and Oasis were No1 in the charts again. Sadly, it offered hollow promise. Once she had been broken by her spirited opponent at the end of the first set, she seemed to lose the will to fight. And by the end of the match, it was hard to reconcile the cowed, placid and immobile figure with the young woman who, when she first arrived on the scene, had threatened to change the game.
What seemed odd about Williams’s performance, particularly in that ignominious second set, was the lack of grit. It was so uncharacteristic. This was a woman who was driven from the very first moment she held a racket by an insatiable need to win. That was what pushed her out of poverty, that was what delivered her seven grand slam titles, that was what kept her going through recent medical and emotional issues. Williams had carried on through everything that life had thrown at her.
And she did it, she said, because she was in love with the game. Tennis was where she drew hope and inspiration and purpose. Not that you would have known it during her after-match press conference.
Gracious on court in the immediate aftermath, before journalists she was terse, sardonic and irritable, and gave every impression of someone who had long ago lost all affection for what she was doing.
While her 2007 champion colleague Federer charms and jokes his way through the questions he has heard a thousand times before, Williams could not disguise her contempt.
“She played really well,” was the extent of her analysis when asked what it was that had caused her second-set collapse.
You should never say never in sport, particularly a sport in which Federer keeps extending the parameters of competitive life expectancy. But that was surely the last Wimbledon will see of Venus Williams in a final.
Asked if, presumably, she would be back next year, she answered with a sneeringly sarcastic “presumably”.
But if she is, we can only hope she has a more auspicious concluding act.
It had taken her nine years to return to the scene of her triumphs. And the pain of being made to scrabble and stumble at the last was written in every monosyllable. That is one of the abiding truths of sport: no matter how long you have been in the game, losing never gets any easier.
Asked if, presumably, she would be back next year, she replied with a sneeringly sarcastic “presumably”
Final act: Venus Williams cannot hide her disappointment as she holds her trophy