If you’ve never seen Venus and Serena Williams play doubles together, it is a beautiful thing. There is something about the body language, the togetherness, the love. But on Wednesday at Wimbledon, it was painful.
They had two long matches in one day, when Serena would have been better off resting, as her singles semifinal would be coming the next day.
She was there for her sister, and that was nice, but it was also the uncomfortable part. They won both matches, but Serena was carrying Venus.
It was Venus double-faulting, double-faulting, double-faulting. Three times in a row. The opponents trying to hit everything to Venus, who was missing easy volleys close to the net. Venus not moving well.
Earlier in the tournament, her tournament, Venus looked even worse while losing in the first round of singles.
Who wants to remember Venus Williams like this? Thirty-two years old, fighting Sjogren’s syndrome, which steals her energy, and struggling on the court.
“Am I struggling?” she said uncharacteristically defensive after losing her singles match. “Am I? I don’t know. Tell me what the struggle is.”
To win matches, someone said.
“I don’t know. I just want you to be clear," she replied. "If you say I’m struggling, tell me how I should do better, you know? I feel like I am a great player. I am a great player.”
How does a great athlete know when it’s time to say when? That question is up with Andy Roddick, too. Roddick and Venus have been two of the three faces of American tennis (with Serena) for the past decade. Both are in decline.
Are both in denial?
Roddick had an opening to get to the final at Wimbledon. He has reached the final here three times; the surface suits him. Rafael Nadal, who was on his side of the draw, had lost. Roddick needed to play great again, and it was possible. But he lost in the third round to David Ferrer. When it was over, Roddick waved to the crowd, blew kisses and made people wonder if he was saying goodbye for good.
Could he say definitively that he would be back next year?
“No,” he said. And when pressed several more times, he said he didn’t have an answer in his own head, so he certainly wouldn’t be able to articulate one. But he also defended his play, pointing out that he won the tournament in Eastbourne leading up to Wimbledon.
“You know, honestly, going into Eastbourne, I was hoping I’d win a match because I hadn’t won a match in so long,” he said. “So, you tell me, I win seven straight and have a chance to move on (at Wimbledon) against a guy that is (ranked) 5 in the world and played a pretty good match. That’s some progress in a short period of time . . .
“I just got back to the point where I’m playing relevant tennis. I don’t feel like I’m fighting myself. I felt like I was fighting my opponent. It sounds like a simple thing, but it’s a different point.”
It is hard to believe that that’s the standard for a former No. 1 player: playing a relevant match.
The hard truth is this: Neither Venus Williams nor Roddick is going to win another major championship. Williams is ranked No. 58 in the world. Roddick, who will turn 30 next month, is No. 25.
Maybe they can reach a quarterfinal. Venus beat a few top players earlier this year and can still win a big match or two if she keeps feeling better and is able to practice. She cannot win seven in a row, though, to win a major.
Roddick probably has a little more left to give than Venus, as he did win a tournament just a few weeks ago.
But you just wonder what realities are acceptable for them, and what are even acknowledged.
“Unfortunately, I had to deal with circumstances that people don’t normally have to deal with in this sport,” Venus said. “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.
“There’s no way I’m just going to sit down and give up just because I’ve had a hard time the first five or six freaking tournaments back.”
Tennis is not like baseball, where you can hide a bad batting average in the bottom of a lineup or bad legs in the designated hitter spot. It’s not golf, where Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer could play right now, finish way, way back and not embarrass themselves.
You cannot be a ceremonial tennis player.
This isn’t to say that Venus or Roddick should go now. It’s just to point out that the big question is here. And they have to face certain truths. Nearly every top athlete in every sport goes through this, and they’re usually the last to know.
Roddick seems to have a good idea of his reality, which is why he’s unwilling to commit even to next year. He actually almost quit a few years ago, but then made big changes to his game, got back to the final of Wimbledon and nearly beat Roger Federer.
But his serve isn’t dominant anymore, and his forehand has gotten weak.
He has followed several months of bad play with a couple weeks of “relevant.” He’s not embarrassing himself, though, and he says simply that he enjoys life on tour.
Not only that, but when Pete Sampras was getting old and falling in the rankings, he popped back to win one more US Open, beating young Roddick on the way. Let’s hope that’s not what Roddick is holding onto.
Venus thinks she’ll get better with more time and expects to come back to Wimbledon a few more times. That’s a little hard to see, as her autoimmune disease is something she’ll have to manage the rest of her life. And age doesn’t turn back.
Venus got better in the second doubles match Wednesday, and the Williams sisters advanced to the quarterfinals. But one of my favorite tennis moments was watching them play doubles in the bullring at the French Open. That’s how you want to remember her. That, and her grace and championships at Wimbledon.
Not fumbling and stumbling around while Serena risks covering for her.