The second-oldest woman to play in the last four of a grand slam is a “freak” – but Lindsay Davenport, in praising the longevity of Venus Williams, stressed that she meant this in the nicest possible way.
Williams, who’s 36, plays Germany’s Angelique Kerber in today’s Wimbledon semi-final, her first for seven years in which she’s battled an illness that has threatened her career. The oldest was Martina Navratilova in 1994 when she was 37.
“Venus is amazing,” said Davenport, who won three slam titles including Wimbledon in 1999. “It just goes to show the athleticism she has. When she came up you could see it but what she’s doing now is really, really hard – it’s like what Martina did.
“In the most complimentary way she and her sister Serena are such freaks because their athleticism is so great. They are amazing specimens and to be able to compete at that level at their age – and you almost forget that Serena is almost 35 – is remarkable. Tennis is a tough sport and it can be hard getting out of bed some mornings but they make it look so seamless.”
All the more remarkable in Venus’s case because in 2009, having felt unwell many times previously without knowing why, she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune illness that causes chronic fatigue and muscle soreness. Doctors doubted she’d ever play again.
“To be 36 and also to be carrying a disorder, I cannot even comprehend how tough that must be, day in and day out,” added Davenport. “I can’t fathom how she’s still doing this, how she gets up to practise, how she musters the strength every day to put herself in a position of being in a grand slam semi-final. You can run out of superlatives for describing her.
“It’s something we never knew about. We first heard when she had to pull out of the US Open and take a little time away. We all did our studying on Google and Wikipedia trying to read about the illness but it’s hard enough for a regular 36-year-old to muster up the energy and the spirit and the body to compete at a high level but to do it with her illness is overwhelming.
“A disorder that hurts your joints and leaves you with a lack of energy – that sort of thing would be the worst for an athlete and yet she manages it with grace. She’s persevered quite beautifully over the last few years.”
The illness is such that Williams, a seven-times slam champion with five Wimbledon titles to her name, never knows how she will feel until she wakes up. “It was a relief to know what was wrong with me because I could go ‘OK, I’m not crazy,’” Williams said after her quarter-final win over Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan. “This has been my life. I wouldn’t wish it any other way. It’s been a beautiful life, it’s been a great experience, it’s been everything.”
Some have wondered if this will be the last time we see the senior Williams sister in SW19. Davenport added: “When you’ve been at the top and you’ve won all these titles, people like to keep asking: ‘When are you going to quit?’ The fans want to know but she’s been steadfast that she doesn’t want to stop, that she’s not going anywhere and that no one is going to push her out of the sport but her when she feel it’s time.
“To persevere through a lot of early defeats in slams over the last few years for a player who won seven and consistently reached semis and finals is tough to accept. But Venus still believes. She came out with a great quote the other day: ‘No one picks you when you’re first, no one picks you when you’re last, but you have to keep picking yourself.’ I absolutely love that quote – it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard because it’s so true.
“She’s always believed in herself, it’s a great message to everyone and an inspiration, and it’s been great to watch her play here.”