It’s been twelve years since Venus Williams’ US Open breakthrough, when she reached the finals in her first appearance there as a pro.
To get an idea of how long a time that is in tennis, consider this: Twelve years ago, Andre Agassi was an underachiever. Roger Federer was a promising junior. Maria Sharapova was 10.
Twelve years after his US Open breakthrough, Pete Sampras won his last major and brought an end to his career. Twelve years after winning her first Roland Garros crown, Steffi Graf won her last and declared that she wouldn’t be back.
Williams is now 29, and as one might suspect, a career as long as her's goes through many phases.
1997-2000: Struggling Phenom
Winning her first six matches at the US Open was followed by a lopsided beating from Martina Hingis in the final.
This was to be a pattern that repeated itself over the next handful of years, as Williams was a better athlete than the entire rest of the tour and had more shots than the other ladies, but often struggled to put them together for seven matches.
When the Williams name finally went on a Grand Slam trophy, it was that of her younger, more muscular sister, Serena.
2000-03: Life at the Top
That all changed at Wimbledon in 2000, when she beat Hingis, her younger, more muscular sister, and Lindsay Davenport in succession to capture her first major. For a time after that, she was the unquestionable best in the world, duplicating both of those wins in ’01.
Starting at the 2002 Roland Garros, she might well have won a “Venus Slam” were it not for that younger, more muscular sister of her's who beat her in four consecutive major finals.
2003-05: In the Wilderness
And then came the darkest days of both her and her younger sister’s careers.
Venus suffered an injury in the latter half of ’03, something all major athletes must endure, but also something no human being should ever have to: the shocking murder of her older sister Yetunde Price.
From then on, it seemed that neither she, nor her younger, more muscular sister could find consistent results, and the women’s game had new faces at its summit, particularly some faces belonging to Russians and Belgians.
2005-09: Grass-court Specialist
In 2005, though, it appeared that Williams had finally discovered a lasting niche that Sampras himself could have recommended. She went into the game’s most prestigious event, having won only one event that year, and was seeded No. 14. Still, she upset Maria Sharapova in the semis.
In fact, Williams pummeled the WTA’s freshest face 7-6, 6-1, breaking Sharapova’s big serve three times in the second. She then in the final round beat Davenport in a match that went to 9-7 in the third set, one of the classic women’s matches of this era.
For the next several years this pattern held: She’d won only a single event in 2007 going into Wimbledon, and then crushed surprise finalist Marion Bartoli in the championship match. She added one more title in the latter half of ’07 and no more in 2008 going into Wimbledon, then defeated her younger sister to capture the title for the fifth time.
Much as it did for Sampras between 1997-2000, Wimbledon accommodates Williams’ big serving (she still holds the record for the fastest serve by a woman, clocked at 129 mph) and athletic ability, as the grass tests the ability of movement like no other surface.
That success also has a psychological effect, as memories of victory instantly transform a struggling athlete into the champion she’s capable of being.
Williams, however, has a problem Sampras never did: The Pistol never had a younger, more muscular brother.
Williams won three titles between the 2008 and 2009 Wimbledons, which, in theory, should have put her in a position at least as good as in prior campaigns. After she won her first six matches on the lawns, though, she had no answer for her little sister in the final.
Serena Williams now has won three of the last four majors. Though not ranked No. 1, she is the best player in women’s tennis in the eyes of just about all observers.
But where does the Wimbledon result leave big sis? Having her favorite title taken from her could have motivated her to better things, but there has been little evidence of this during the summer hard court season: She reached only one final, in Stanford, which she lost to Bartoli. Since then, she’s won one match in two events.
Her inconsistent play is not due to any lack of desire to win; her first-round Open match left no doubt about that. Against Vera Dushevina of Russia, Williams struggled with a knee injury, plus 54 unforced errors and 10 double faults committed over three sets.
But at 4-5 in the second set, only a game away from a first-round upset, she steeled herself, sweeping the final three games of that set and building a cushioned lead in the third.
Having pulled out that match, she easily dispatched Bethanie Mattek-Sands in round two.
One wonders, though, as to whether she lacks the focus that once propelled her to the top, or if it’s too hard to win majors at age 29. It’s not that she’s completely without a niche; she’s no worse than the second-best grass court player on the WTA Tour, and she and her sister make an unbeatable combo in doubles.
But is that enough for a champion who has won seven majors?
Twelve years is a career’s worth for a tennis player. In the near future, Venus Williams must ask herself what niche she wants to have in today’s game, and what she can realistically expect as she approaches her 30s.