It is 19 years since Venus Williams first played at Wimbledon, an opening step on the path to what has been an incredible career. Almost two decades on, the 36-year-old is back in the semi-finals here for the first time in seven years, an achievement which in many ways is every bit as good as any of the five titles she has pocketed here along the way.
The American’s 7-6, 6-2 victory over Yaroslava Shvedova, of Kazakhstan, put her into the last four of a grand slam for the first time since 2010 and at 36, she is the oldest woman to make the last four here since a 37-year-old Martina Navratilova in 1994. Given the hurdles she has had to overcome to get here, this one must feel all the sweeter.
“Being in the semi-finals feels good,” said the No8 seed, who now plays the Australian Open champion, Angelique Kerber, of Germany, for a place in the final. “But it doesn’t feel foreign at all, let’s put it that way. The road [to get here] was six years. They go by fast, thankfully. But I’ve been blessed, been really blessed, to have an opportunity to be here, have had an opportunity in the past to do this. I don’t have any regrets about anything that’s taken place in between. It’s been a journey, but it’s made me stronger.”
In 2009, Williams, having felt unwell many times over the previous few years without knowing why, was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune illness that causes chronic fatigue and muscle soreness. Medical experts cast doubt on whether she would ever play again, professionally, but giving up never even crossed her mind. Retiring is the easy way out. I don’t have time for easy,” she said. “Tennis is just hard.”
It is an attitude befitting of a seven-times grand slam champion who worked her way up from nothing to become the No1 player in the world. The nature of the illness is such that Williams never really knows how she will feel until she wakes up. One day she can feel great, the next she is exhausted. Many players in her situation would have been angry, asking “why me?” but Williams got on with life, always trying to find ways to improve. “The most difficult part of the journey is just not being in control because when you’re an athlete, you’re used to being in control, being able to work for anything,” she said. “Not being able to do that is a challenge. Also it was a relief for me to know what was wrong with me because I hadn’t felt well in a while. That was, ‘OK, I’m not crazy’. So that was a good moment. This has been my life. What can I say? I wouldn’t wish it any other way. It’s been my life. It’s been a beautiful life. It’s been a great experience. It’s been everything.”
There have been low moments – until 2015 she had gone beyond round three just once since the diagnosis – but two grand slam quarter-finals last year gave her hope and on Tuesday she played superbly to cope with a determined performance from Shvedova. Inner belief, she said, was the key to her path to this point.
“It’s hard to say just one lesson,” she said. “[But] it’s easy to be afraid. You have to let fear go. Another lesson is you just have to believe in yourself, you just have to. There’s no way around it. No matter how things are stacked against you, you just have to every time.”
Trailing 5-2 in the first-set tiebreak, she reeled off five points in a row to move ahead and then eased through the second set, despite a brave effort from Shvedova, ranked 96 but once as high as 25 and a confident player on grass.
Next up is Kerber, who won her first grand slam title in Melbourne this year, beating Venus’s sister, Serena, in the final. It will be a tough task. “I think you never want to bet against a seven-times grand slam champ,” said another former world No1 Lindsay Davenport. “She has the game here, [is] most comfortable on the grass and it rewards her game well. But I don’t know.
“Kerber can physically really challenge her and get a lot of balls back. She’s got to play great, offensive tennis from the get-go. She obviously has a great chance but I don’t think she’s favourite.”
Williams may not have won a grand slam singles title since she lifted her fifth Wimbledon crown in 2008 but she retains a champion’s mentality. Two more wins and it might be the stuff of fairytales. “Like that movie Wimbledon,” she said. “Real life is what Hollywood is based off of so hey, let’s do it.”
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