In My Opinion

Linda Robertson: Aging Venus Williams pondering tennis future

The match between Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens was freighted with symbolism.

Would the outcome represent the ascension of “the next” Venus and coronation of the long-awaited, newest American tennis star?

Stephens defeated Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January. On Saturday at the Sony Open, it was her chance to go 2-0 against the sisters, her trailblazers.

But it was over before it began. Williams withdrew during her warmup session, citing lower back pain, and Stephens advanced without playing a point.

Fans were denied a neat illustration of the state of flux in American women’s tennis, which was appropriate because there is nothing neat about Venus’ lingering viability and Serena’s staying power.

Stephens, 20, may put together another major tournament run here — if she gets past No. 4 seed Agnieska Radwanska on Monday — but it won’t be at Venus’ expense. Venus was again vanquished by injury. Health continues to be her toughest opponent.

“Yeah, a little bummed,” Stephens said of the non-match. “I wouldn’t say a letdown, but you’re so ready to play and it was like, oh.”

It was a letdown. The past few years of Venus’ career have been a letdown. Terrific spikes pepper her results, but the overall graph shows a downward trajectory. Nonetheless, she says she is not ready to retire.

Like pitcher Mariano Rivera, she has earned the right not to be pestered by retirement suggestions. Like him, she wants to go out at full strength. Unlike him, she hasn’t declared a deadline for the public.

Perhaps she should consider one. Venus is 32 — 33 by the time Wimbledon starts. It’s been two years since she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune illness that causes fatigue and joint inflammation. She deserves a proper farewell tour, not a pity party.

Staying positive

“I have faced disappointments in my life and my career,” she said Saturday. “It’s not the first, probably not the last. Just have to get through it and stay positive.”

She and Serena won their fifth Wimbledon doubles title last year, but the five-time Wimbledon singles champ was eliminated in the first round in a singles match that was painful to watch. She looked tired and stiff yet afterward rejected any suggestion that she was in the twilight of her career.

“I am a great player,” she said after the loss. “Unfortunately, I had to deal with circumstances that people don’t normally have to deal with in this sport. But I can’t be discouraged by that, so I’m up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunity.”

When she won the Luxembourg Open in October, it was her first WTA singles title in 2 1/2 years. It was the highlight of a year in which she couldn’t get past the second round of any major tournament. She hasn’t advanced past the fourth round of a Grand Slam since the 2010 U.S. Open, hasn’t beaten a No. 1 player since 2009.

Last year, after a seven-month layoff, she was especially motivated to improve her ranking in order to compete in the Olympics, where she won a third doubles gold medal with Serena. This year?

She’s back up to No. 18 after dropping to No. 134 during an injury-marred 2011 and hoped to do well in her “home tournament,” where she was a quarterfinalist last year. She’s won it three times: In 1998, she beat Martina Hingis in the semis and Anna Kournikova in the final; in 1999, she beat Serena; and in 2001, she beat Jennifer Capriati. In 2010, she lost the final to Kim Clijsters.

But consider that Hingis, 32, Clijsters, 29, and another rival, Justine Henin, 29, have all retired. Lindsay Davenport retired at 32. Leaf through the list of pros, and Venus, Liezel Huber, Nuria Llagostera Vives, Francesca Schiavone, Kimiko Date and Lisa Raymond are the only ones born in 1980 or earlier (Raymond plays doubles).

When Stephens’ mother first introduced her to tennis in Plantation in 2002, Venus and Serena were her idols; Venus made the singles finals of three Grand Slams. Last year, Venus didn’t get beyond the second round of the three Slams she played.

Even Stephens sounded weary of the comparisons.

“Obviously, Venus and Serena are great inspirations to kids, especially to American girls,” she said. “Definitely, it was a little blown out of proportion, but I looked up to them. But I think it’s kind of died off a little bit now.”

Grind grips venus

Even she puffed out her cheeks and rolled her eyes when asked if she could foresee playing to age 32.

“That’s crazy,” she said. “I don’t know. I just turned 20. I want to play for as long as possible, but if that means I play until 42 like Kimiko Date — I don’t think I’d push it that far, but as long as my body is willing to go with me.”

Tennis is a globe-trotting grind, and Venus’ legs no longer have the stamina and quickness that enabled her to cover the corners of the court. She could consider adjusting her game, re-energizing her serve and coming to the net more readily.

Given her illness, she should choose 10-day tournaments judiciously. An eighth singles Slam title seems like a long shot, but more doubles Slams with Serena are there for the taking, and a great source of joy for the sisters.

Their father, Richard Williams, predicted that his daughters would be out of the sport by their mid-20s and moving on to entrepreneurship. He was halfway right. They have engineered remarkable tennis careers in conjunction with their design and fashion businesses.

Venus, who has won $28 million in prize money, isn’t washed up, but no one wants to see her beautiful game reduced to that state. She is on the verge of the decision athletes must make much sooner than the rest of us.

Venus is still competing because she is stubborn, proud and loyal to her doubles partner, who remains the most formidable player in women’s tennis. When Serena swept past Ayumi Morita 6-3, 6-3 and absorbed the love of the crowd on Stadium Court, Venus could only watch, touch her aching back and ponder her future.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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