The calendar insists the end is near for Venus Williams, but the results continue to dissent. The 36-year-old American – the oldest woman in the top 200 and the oldest in the draw here – overcame a game challenge from Maria Sakkari in an entertaining second-round tilt on Thursday to book a meeting with Russia’s Daria Kasatkina in the round of 32.
The 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 victory was a match of high quality that drew out Williams’s taste for the fight and left an overflow crowd on the smallest of Wimbledon’s half-dozen show courts engrossed for 2hr 25min – even if it came against an opponent she would have walked through in her prime.
Sakkari, a Greek qualifier ranked 115th in the world, was still unborn when Williams turned professional and only four when the American won the first of her five Wimbledon singles titles. The muscular 20-year-old compensated for the chasm in experience by bullying the No8 seed Williams from corner to corner with sharp angled groundstrokes, executing her stated tactics to perfection and crushing twice as many winners (34) as unforced errors (17). But she faltered on crucial points in the decider, gifting the seven-times grand slam champion the only opening she would need to advance.
The winter of Williams’ career, too often dwarfed by her sister’s incandescent third act, has been nearly as remarkable. She is playing in her 71st major tournament – moving level with Amy Frazier for most in the Open era – and incredibly finds herself back in the top 10 alongside players nearly half her age. She is the oldest player seeded in the top eight at a grand slam since Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1994. That her resurgence has come five years after she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an incurable autoimmune disease with unpredictable symptoms that cast major doubt on her tennis future, is all the more stunning.
It is a narrative worthy of a Centre Court showcase, certainly for an eight-times finalist and five-times winner. Yet Thursday’smatch – theoretically one of Williams’s last at SW19 – took place in the relatively modest confines of Court No18, where a four-deep crowd of spectators along the red-brick balcony overlooking the action practically doubled the official seating capacity of 782.
The assignment to the relative outskirts prompted a minor furore on social media, one day after Petra Kvitova, herself a two-time champion, was relegated from No1 Court to No18 as organisers attempted to keep the tournament on course. “It’s because of the weather but it still stinks,” Navratilova said on Twitter, “no more of that nonsense.”
For a tournament steeped in tradition and so aggressively fastidious about honouring its icons, the decision seemed to invite controversy. Williams, a long-time champion of gender equity who led the fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon, addressed the matter hours later, after winning a late-afternoon doubles match. “I’m willing to play anywhere, any time,” she said. “I think if all players have to play outside, all players should have to play outside. There shouldn’t be exceptions or any inequality to it. For me, no problems playing anywhere. Anyone should play anywhere. [That means] both men and women. I played many times on outside courts. It didn’t matter how many titles I had won or what my ranking was at that time. It didn’t make a difference whether I played on an outside court or a centre court. Like I said, I don’t mind where I play. It’s just as long as everyone plays on the outside courts, you know.”
The match itself was a cracker amid the weather that has dogged these Championships, with pale sunlight and patches of blue sky peeking through ominous clouds and unpredictable conditions wreaking havoc on both players’ tosses. After trading breaks of serve early Williams held at love at 5-5 then broke Sakkari in the 12th game – just as light rain began to fall – to pocket the opening set in an hour.
Sakkari was at her energetic, relentless best in the second set, negating Williams’ power with brilliant lateral movement. She chased down balls pounded into the corners by her veteran opponent that would have been winners against nearly anyone else. Williams was broken in her opening three service games and could not recover despite a late-set fightback.
They traded holds in the first five games of the decider, but when Sakkari pushed a backhand past the baseline serving at 2-3 and break-point down, Williams had the distance she needed. Twelve minutes later, she kissed a backhand slice that Sakkari dumped into the net and it was finished.
Still afterward, the choice of venue was the point of discussion. “To make it crystal clear, like I said, I wasn’t unhappy to play [on Court 18],” Williams said. “I just want equality for men’s and women’s matches. That’s what I’m unhappy about. I have no problem where I play. I’ll play on the practice courts if I need to. I have no problem with that.”
When asked whether she planned to talk to tournament officials about the court assignment, Williams said change must come from within. “I’m sure that the WTA supervisors have done their best to, you know, try to make the schedule equal. But also the All England Club has to have a culture where they want to have equality, as well. They need to want to pursue that. I would love to see where we don’t have to talk about this any more in the press conference.”
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