Venus’ resur­gence a joy to watch Down Un­der

The Herald - Sport - - FRONT PAGE -

If it was any­one else, they would al­most cer­tainly have quit ten­nis by now. They would be ly­ing on a beach some­where, en­joy­ing be­ing a sev­en­time grand slam-win­ning cham­pion and a multi-mil­lion­aire, as well as hav­ing ce­mented the le­gacy of be­ing one half of the world’s most fa­mous sport­ing sis­ters. But for Venus Wil­liams, quit­ting was never an op­tion.

This week at the Aus­tralian Open, the 34 year-old has had her most suc­cess­ful grand slam tour­na­ment for over four years by reach­ing the quar­ter fi­nals. This week’s suc­cess is par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive when you con­sider the chal­lenges that the el­der Wil­liams sis­ter has had to face through­out the last four years.

In 2011, she re­vealed that she had Sjo­gren’s syn­drome, an auto-im­mune dis­ease which causes chronic fa­tigue and mus­cle sore­ness. It’s left Wil­liams play­ing matches that she clearly should not have played, look­ing gaunt, weak and over­pow­ered by her op­po­nent and los­ing to play­ers who, at her peak, would not have got close to her.

Sjo­gren’s syn­drome is in­cur­able but it is a con­di­tion that Wil­liams has, slowly but surely, learned how best to cope with. She has al­tered her diet and fo­cused on rest and re­cov­ery but it re­mains un­likely that Wil­liams will ever re­turn to the form which took her to seven Grand Slam ti­tles.

For most peo­ple, such an ob­sta­cle would have been too much to battle, par­tic­u­larly when one con­sid­ers how de­mand­ing the phys­i­cal as­pect of be­ing an elite women’s ten­nis player is th­ese days. But not for Wil­liams. Af­ter drop­ping as low as 134 in the world, she has steadily fought her way back up the rank­ings and was seeded 18th at the Aus­tralian Open.

Her run to the quar­ter fi­nals was truly in­cred­i­ble. This Aus­tralian Open has been Wil­liams best grand slam per­for­mance since Wim­ble­don in 2010 when she reached the semi-fi­nals. And her re­cent im­prove­ment and con­sis­tency of re­sults on tour is be­gin­ning to bear fruit – in Mon­day’s up­dated rank­ing list, Wil­liams is pro­jected to rise to num­ber 11.

But why does she con­tinue to plug away? Wil­liams is some con­sid­er­able dis­tance from the form that made her, at one point, an ut­terly dom­i­nant force on the ten­nis court and her le­gacy as one of the most suc­cess­ful fe­male ten­nis play­ers of all time is safe – only Martina Navratilova and St­effi Graf have won more Wim­ble­don ti­tles than Wil­liams in the open era. To­gether with her sis­ter, the pair have changed the way women’s ten­nis is played.

So, it seems that Wil­liams has lit­tle to gain by con­tin­u­ing to trudge on in a seem­ingly fu­tile at­tempt to add to her tally of grand slams. But Wil­liams is a fighter. Noth­ing has ever come easy to ei­ther of them; ever since their fa­ther de­cided when they were chil­dren that they were to be­come ten­nis play­ers, they have had to fight against the tide to get to where they are now.

When Wil­liams be­gan play­ing the sport in Comp­ton, the LA area in which they trained was a no­to­ri­ous gang­land and drug-deal­ing area. The court they played on was cracked, with pot-holes and a ripped net. Even in th­ese early days, Venus was told by her fa­ther that she would be a cham­pion.

That Wil­liams over­came all of this ad­ver­sity to be­come the best woman’s ten­nis player in the world is, per­haps, what has given her the be­lief that she can over­come Sjo­gren’s syn­drome. Ear­lier this week, she opened up some­what on why she con­tin­ues to play ten­nis; “For me to be out here now, it’s to prove to my­self that I won’t let any­thing de­feat me”, she said. And it is this at­ti­tude which has al­lowed her to excel through­out her ca­reer; what­ever chal­lenges she faces, noth­ing seems in­sur­mount­able.

With­out their tough up­bring­ing, would ei­ther of the sis­ters have been quite so pro­lific as they have turned out to be? It is their men­tal re­silience that sets them apart from their peers. Much of their suc­cess is cred­ited to their phys­i­cal­ity yet their men­tal tough­ness is equally, if not more im­por­tant.

Wil­liams cites one per­son who has been her in­spi­ra­tion; Serena, “the ul­ti­mate cham­pion”. “She’s al­ways been some­one that any­one can learn from”, Wil­liams said. “The way she faces her life, the way she is fear­less on the court – I don’t think I could have done the things I’ve done with­out her.”

Serena con­tin­ues to reign supreme – to­mor­row, she aims to cap­ture her 19th grand slam ti­tle. It is ques­tion­able as to whether ei­ther of the Wil­liams sis­ters, but par­tic­u­larly Venus, has been granted the credit they truly de­serve.

The de­bate over why, is nev­erend­ing. Some ven­ture that it is re­lated to their sex, their race, or the fact that the sis­ters don’t con­form to the stan­dards of the great fe­male cham­pi­ons of old, where grace and fi­nesse were seen as the finest traits.

In spite of her resur­gence, it would take a very brave pun­dit to sug­gest that Venus will add to her grand slam haul. In many ways that is ir­rel­e­vant now. Be­cause her never-say-die at­ti­tude, so ob­vi­ous in Mel­bourne, has given her le­gacy a new, shim­mer­ing gloss.

TO­MOR­ROW Hugh MacDon­ald

Sjo­gren’s syn­drome has left Wil­liams play­ing matches that she clearly shouldn’t have played, look­ing gaunt, weak and over­pow­ered

STILL STRETCH­ING EV­ERY SINEW: Venus Wil­liams’ per­for­mance in Mel­bourne was against all odds.

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