Bursting on the scene at 14, winning her first U.S. Open at 20 despite being sidelined for five months with tendinitis, Venus Williams was no ordinary tennis player. African-American and beautiful, tall and with a huge arm span, her tennis was strong, athletic and usually dominant when not injured.
Her U.S. Open win in 2000 was preceded by what became a Williams staple. In 1997, at the age of seventeen, Venus found herself moving quickly to the U.S. Open final against Martina Hingis. Changing ends in the semis, Irina Spirlea intentionally bumped Venus. Afterward, her father claimed the bump was racist, although he withdrew that claim later.
What was the controversy all about? According to many, Venus was "aloof." And so would you be if you felt that the entire tennis world was after you because you were African-American.
The two sides of Venus Williams, fragile and finally with a debilitating autoimmune disease, and victim of what was at times likely animosity and perhaps even racism, emerged last night in different and wholly unexpected ways.
Venus Williams found herself at midnight locked in what was, despite her sixty unforced errors (a count we will get to in a minute), a wonderful match after a lackluster first set with the late night very sparce crowd yelling for her to get going. It was rowdy. It was late. It was New York. And it could have been Venus Williams' last appearance.
For those of you who failed to watch this match, it included perhaps the hardest hitting tennis ever seen on the women's side during any match. Period. And it was perhaps the greatest stretch of women's tennis ever played. Not just for the quality of play, but also for the toughness of the two competitors.
A highlight of the match was the play of sixth seed Angelique Kerber who won 6-2, 5-7, 7-5. Likely to face her sister later in the tournament, Kerber could also defeat Serena Williams on her way to her first U.S. Open.
Now to those errors. There are some tennis matches where the errors show the inferiority of the play. Not here. If anything, the errors were caused by Venus pressing to pass Kerber with Kerber not surrendering an inch of her side of the court. Many rallies went back and forth from side to side with Kerber, despite being badly out of position, somehow getting to the ball and getting it back. One lob was among the most memorable in any tennis match.
Winner of five grand slams at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open never suited Venus Williams as much. Perhaps the bump started this. But a part showed up during the after-match interview.
In a sad statement about what it is to be Venus Williams at the U.S. Open, she said (via The Jakarta Post): "I know this is not proper tennis etiquette, but this is the first time I've ever played here that the crowd has been behind me like that. Today I felt American for the first time at the U.S. Open," Williams said. "So I've waited my whole career to have this moment and here it is."
Venus has always been my favorite Williams. A lady, prim and proper, perfect for Wimbledon. A warm soul, who has suffered so much with few comments and almost always a smile. So much more likeable than her younger sister Serena, whose hyper-aggression plays into what can only be seen as occasional assaults on lines persons including the worst I have ever seen. A pleasant countenance unlike the scowling Serena.
So sad to see her thinking exposed, so tragic to understand that every time she stepped out on the court at the U.S. Open she did not feel American.
We are all proud of you Venus. In many respects, your play is and will be unsurpassed. And on this night that could be your last, how wonderful to see you reach down so far despite your disease to put on a display that will be remembered forever as the most wonderful achievement of this U.S. Open.