The end is a little closer for Venus

Venus Williams’ mother, Oracene, said it best to her daughter after she retired just one game into her third-round match against Andrea Petkovic at the Australian Open on Friday: “I don’t think you should have come here in the first place.”

In this case, mother knows best. Even though Williams has been a true warrior at the Grand Slams over the past 14 years, she had not spent enough time rehabbing from her knee injury last fall to give herself any chance of a legitimate run at the Aussie Open. Plus she came into the tournament out of shape and consequently strained or tore a muscle near her groin in her second-round win over Sandra Zahlavova.

On Friday night, she limped down the hallway into Rod Laver Arena with a heavily strapped right thigh, and it was clear during the warmups that she could barely move. She opened the match with a weak first serve that Petkovic powered crosscourt, and one of the fleetest women in tennis history didn’t even move to her right to retrieve a fairly standard ball. A handful of points later, with Petkovic serving, Williams bent over in pain, walked over to her chair, called a medical timeout and the WTA trainer told her that there was nothing she could do to ease her pain.

Williams then retired from a Grand Slam singles contest for the first time in 251 matches.

“My parents and coaches probably didn’t think I should play,” she later said, and then asked Oracene, “What do you think, Mom?”

Oracene shook her head and delivered a hard, but necessary reply. Venus then was asked whether she should have come to Melbourne at all — and while she can be incredibly stubborn, she slightly reconsidered:

“When I think of myself and my career, I don’t make any excuses ever to myself or anyone,” she said. “For me, it was just important to give 100 percent. I think I learn from experiences like this. If I’m not ready to play or if I’m still hurting, maybe it’s better to stop. That’s just learning from life. I’ve learned now more or less what my limits are. Just learn from that the next time.”

She didn’t cry. But she was downtrodden. Part of the crowd inappropriately booed her when she walked off court, but it was a Friday night party crowd, many of whom had no idea that she has been injured in her prior matches. They were possibly just upset that they witnessed Gael Monfils all but give up against Stan Wawrinka in the first match of the night and that they couldn’t see what promised to be a high-level women’s match and were sent packing into the night.

Venus never should have walked on court on Friday night. More important, she never should have come to Australia in such poor condition; it was clear by looking at her usually lean and super-toned legs that she has put on a few extra pounds because she had spent much of the fall on crutches.

At the age of 30 and after 13 hardcore years on tour (and another stressful three part-time years), there is no point in her taking big risks with her chronically injured body. She hasn’t won a major in nearly three years, and her chances of winning another one off of a grass court are slim, so what she should be doing is making sure she’s 100 percent healthy before she walks on court, especially when before coming to Australia she had missed five of the past six months and only played the U.S. Open in between Wimbledon and the Aussie Open.

She admitted later that she realized that even if by some minor miracle the adrenaline kicked in and she had been able to best Petkovic, she didn’t have another four matches left in her body. And if the seven-time Grand Slam champion cannot hope to compete for major titles, then what exactly is she out there for?

“Of course that’s in the back of my mind,” she said. “It’s tough to come into a match not knowing what level you can give. Normally you go into a match and you’re already focused anyway, and it’s hard to focus on so many other things outside of just the game. So that was hard. Then to think about if I could last five more matches like that and what the future was.

"So it was really just one match at a time. Hey, can I make it one more match? Obviously I just couldn’t.”

Venus always has been the more stoic one of her family. Her sister Serena will yell and cry in public, while in the 17 years Venus has been on tour, it’s hard to recall even one moment when she shed a tear outside of the locker room. In fact, a tour official who knows her well never has seen her cry inside the locker room.

It could not have felt good going on court and knowing that she had no chance to win, or walking off the court to a ridiculous round of boozy boos. But she said she wasn’t gutted, even though perhaps her final chance to win her first Aussie Open is over.

“I think it hurts more when you lose and it’s your fault, like you made bad decisions and didn’t get the ball in play. This time, I feel like I tried really hard to be in this tournament. At this point I have peace of mind that I gave everything I had at all points. So more than anything, I can’t be disappointed in that aspect.”

Venus remains optimistic about her future, recalling her great days rather than her underwhelming ones. She recalled her strong run to the 2010 U.S. Open semis when she gave eventual champion Kim Clijsters all she could handle in a three-set loss, even though she came into the tournament with little preparation and on a bum knee.

“Well, I’m still pretty good, even when I’m injured,” she said. “I mean, at the Open I came pretty close to winning that tournament just on a hope and a prayer and little-to-no preparation. Here, you know I was grinding. So I’m just going to focus obviously on getting healthy and coming back. Because I love tennis and I’ve got a lot of great tennis in me. I love my job, so no end in sight.”

There is an end for every player, and maybe Venus just can’t envision where her pro tennis road stops. But from the looks of it on a Friday night in Melbourne, she’s hit a major roadblock, and her engine is very close to shutting down permanently.

Petkovic to face Sharapova

Sadly, the world won’t get to see a healthy Venus face a revved-up Maria Sharapova, who overcame a spirited effort from another talented German, Julia Goerges, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. Former No. 1 Sharapova and Venus have played only six times, with their head-to-head locked at 3-3, and it’s conceivable they may never face each other again.

Sharapova was heartened by how she fought against Georges, how she managed to hold serve in her last two service games after letting go of a 4-0 lead in the final set. But she’s still a little all over the place off the ground, and she’s going to have to improve a good deal to beat the hard-hitting Petkovic in the fourth round, then possibly a super-determined Victoria Azarenka (who says she’s much more at ease at the slams now) or red-hot Li Na in the quarters.

Sharapova is in Melbourne with a new coach, Thomas Hogstedt, and it seems at times that she’s stuck in between game plans. They had better come to an agreement fast on what she should be doing, because she’s in the money end of the tournament now and there’s no time for hesitation, great fight or no fight at all.