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Couch: Age, skills aren't the real problem for Venus Williams
It is now just painful to watch Venus Williams. It used to be joyful. She can play as well as she ever did, but can’t do it two days in a row. Or two minutes in a row. Or, if she can, then you don’t know which two days, which two minutes.
She doesn’t either.
Williams lost in the first round of the Australian Open on Sunday, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Ekaterina Makarova. The easy narrative is that Williams is 33, and that all of the things that come with old age in tennis are now coming to her.
But it isn’t that easy. And that’s part of what makes it so painful watching someone who has meant so much to the game and done it so elegantly for so long.
Williams has completely modernized her game. Yes, at 33. Her serve and forehand don’t look the same as they used to.
She slaps at them now with a looping follow-through, rather than using the old, classic fluid arm movements. Her backhand is different, too. She was slicing forehands at times, mixing up shots. She hit dropshots.
She has never done any of this. Think of the want-to it takes to do it now, when she could so easily blame her slide on age, and on Sjogren’s syndrome, which causes fatigue.
“The last 12 months I have had issues,’’ she said after her match. “But this year, I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well.’’
It is typical of her to speak so vaguely about her health or injuries. She also said that health is a “factor for any professional athlete, so I don’t think I’m any different from anyone else.’’
This is a courageous fight she won’t even talk about. After watching that match Sunday, I’m convinced it’s the autoimmune disease that’s beating her.
She has lost all of her footspeed, but it’s not so much about age or atrophying skills as it is about health.
I have no proof. She won’t talk about it in detail, and she is at the age where tennis players start to become inconsistent messes. That’s part of her issue for sure. But it was so clear Sunday how much more talented she still is than the woman she lost to.
Nearly two years ago at the Fed Cup in Worcester, Mass., Williams told me in a private moment that, “I don’t know if I will ever feel normal again. I don’t know if I will.’’
The next day, her agent called me, saying she had regretted opening up, that she was worried how that was going to look. I could talk with her again; maybe I could talk with her doctor. But she just didn’t want people thinking that she was complaining, and didn’t want other players to think she had this weakness.
But she did. She does.
She wished she had said that she now will just have to adjust to her new normal. And she was changing her diet and her medicines several times to find it.
From watching her Sunday, it appears she has no energy whatsoever. No stamina. Certainly no speed. She can’t even get out of the way of the ball anymore.
She’s still got game, but she looks like she’s in pain.
You wonder: How long is she going to keep this up? How long is she going to be willing to get out there and lose to an Ekaterina Makarova?
Well, if she’s planning to leave, then why is she modernizing her game?
So it’s painful to watch, because you want better for her. But you don’t know when the good is there, or when the bad. There is no hint of what’s coming. No momentum, right or wrong.
You’re nervous watching her, unsure what the next forehand is going to do — remind us of her greatness or start to add uncomfortable new memories that can only chip away at the old.
And here’s the sad part: She is nervous and unsure, too. She looks desperate because she doesn’t know what her body is going to do next.
A great athlete relies so heavily on a body that will do everything it is told to do.
Now, Williams is ranked No. 37 and Makarova 22. So technically, this wasn’t even an upset. But Makarova had nothing to offer other than being the person on the side of the net that Williams was giving big points to.
After winning a brutal game that would have finished off any Williams opponent in the old days, Venus was up 6-2, 4-all. Then, she double-faulted three times in a row.
That was nerves, but based on lack of confidence in her body. At the risk of getting too technical: With that new serve comes a new toss. She was catching her toss, then re-tossing it again and again. When you slap at the ball, the way she does now, the way every young player does, you have to throw the toss higher, and not out front as much.
She knows. She isn’t used to it. So it failed her in the big moment.
She went up 3-0 in the third set, too, but then ran out again.
Look, the book on Williams is that she’s just old. But — and I know this is different from what I’ve said before — with that game, and that size, she can still go on for a few years as a relevant player.
“I just have to be patient and keep going,’’ she said, “and just wait for it to keep coming together more and more.’’
It’s no wonder she doesn’t want to give in. She must see her old self in stretches nearly every day despite the fight she’s putting up. She reached the final of an Australian Open warmup tournament and went three sets with Ana Ivanovic.
But does she ever feel like her old self? Has she ever found a new normal?