If Monday night at the U.S. Open with Serena Williams was electric, Tuesday afternoon with her sister Venus was natural lighting: sunlit yet subdued.
“That’s a good analogy,” said Kim Benjamin, a longtime fan of the Williams sisters from Baton Rouge, La., who was in Arthur Ashe Stadium for both sessions.
Serena Williams’s victory, 6-3, 6-3, over Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in the first round Monday night would have been a tough act to follow for anyone, not just a sibling.
This is Serena’s self-declared last U.S. Open and likely her final tournament, and she extended her stay in the singles draw by shaking off the rust and clicking into some familiar gears against Kovinic with the sellout crowd roaring on its feet as she arrived, as she prevailed and as she departed after an on-court tribute that featured Billie Jean King and a video tribute narrated by Oprah Winfrey.
“You could just feel the energy, and you just knew that Serena was going to come out and want to give it her all, because the crowd was amazing, from the minute she stepped out,” said Benjamin, who purchased a ticket at the last minute. “It was goose bumps.”
But Tuesday afternoon had a very different vibe. The biggest stadium in tennis was half empty and the reception comparatively muted, even if there were plenty of shouts of “We love you, Venus” and “Let’s go, V.”
It is partly a matter of perception. The sisters will be forever linked in the public’s eye as players and doubles partners: sharing the same moonshot journey from cracked public courts in Compton, Calif., to Grand Slam titles and No. 1 in the world.
But though Venus, 42, is long past the typical tennis retirement date and has not won a singles match since she returned to the tour this season, she appears to be on a different career timeline than her sister, or at least has a radically different way of making an exit.
Tuesday’s loss, 6-1, 7-6 (5) to Alison Van Uytvanck, an unseeded Belgian veteran, could well turn out to be the last U.S. Open singles match of Venus’s career but there has been no clarity on her plans, which only widened the disparity between the sisters’ night-and-day experiences this week.
They will soon be reunited on court, playing doubles in a first-round match that almost certainly will be scheduled for Thursday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium. But Venus was not prepared on Tuesday to dissolve the mist surrounding her own tennis future at one of her increasingly rare news conferences.
Serena Williams’s Farewell to Tennis
The U.S. Open could be the tennis star’s last professional tournament after a long career of breaking boundaries and obliterating expectations.
- Decades of Greatness: Over 27 years, Serena Williams dominated generation after generation of opponents and changed the way women’s tennis is played, winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles and cementing her reputation as the queen of comebacks.
- Is She the GOAT?: Proclaiming Williams the greatest women’s tennis player of all time is not a straightforward debate, our columnist writes.
- An Enduring Influence: From former and current players’ memories of a young Williams to the new fans she drew to tennis, Williams left a lasting impression.
- Her Fashion: Since she turned professional in 1995, Williams has used her clothes as a statement of self and a weapon of change.
Question: “We know about Serena and her plans post-Open. After you have done the doubles, do you plan to evolve away from tennis and do your own thing or is tennis still in the forefront of your mind?”
Venus’s response: “Right now I’m just focused on the doubles.”
Retirement is a rightfully sensitive subject for any star athlete, but Venus has had to deal with the speculation and thinly veiled questions much longer than most. With her results slumping, she had to begin fending off retirement queries beginning in her late 20s, quashing them for a time when she experienced her renaissance season in 2017: reaching the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon, making the semifinals of the U.S. Open and soaring inspirationally back into the top five of the rankings at age 37.
She has had, by nearly any measure, a phenomenal career: reaching No. 1 in both singles and doubles, winning seven Grand Slam singles titles (five at Wimbledon and two at the U.S. Open), four Olympic gold medals and winning 14 Grand Slam doubles titles with her sister (they are 14-0 in finals).
But that stirring 2017 revival looks very much like her last hurrah. She has not reached another final at any level since then and has lost nine times in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments in the last five seasons, never advancing past the third round in any major during that span.
“When it’s my last, I’ll let you know,” she said when retirement talk resurfaced after she lost early at Wimbledon again in 2021.
At this stage, having missed nearly a year of action because of injury before returning in July, she has a world ranking of 1,504.
“It was definitely the longest time I have been away from tennis and been without a racket in my hand,” she said. “So it was a completely new experience for me, getting a racket back in my hand and trying to acclimate as quick as possible to be ready for the U.S. Open, which was not easy.”
Because of her ranking, she can only make it into tour-level events through wild cards, like the one awarded to her at this U.S. Open. At some stage, if Venus improbably extends her career well beyond this tournament and season, the largess will and should end. Young players on the rise deserve those opportunities, too, but Venus, even with a quadruple-digit ranking, remains an undeniable drawing card and a touchstone whose many fans, particularly those with siblings, can connect with her story.
“She is in her sister’s shadow in my opinion,” Benjamin said. “I think she doesn’t have obviously the family dynamics that Serena does now with a husband and a child. So, I think that she’s here for the long haul, just because she loves the game so much. I think she’s playing because win, lose, or draw, she’s just happy to be playing the game she loves.”
That is a devoted fan’s view but not the message Venus sent after her latest defeat. She was asked what was driving her out there on the court at this point of her career.
“Three letters,” she answered without hesitation. “W-I-N. That’s it. Very simple.”
If so, this must be a downbeat time, but then perhaps it’s wise to not assume too much.
She has had plenty of opportunities to gracefully step away and bask in the accolades but has continued to head to the practice court with Eric Hechtman, the coach she now shares with Serena, and has continued to step back into the arena, even if her first step is not nearly as quick.
She is hardly embarrassing herself and pushed Van Uytvanck, who is ranked 43rd, into a tiebreaker by lifting her level in the second set with the less-than-capacity crowd providing plenty of positive feedback. But in the end, she could not manufacture quite enough form or consistency.
“In the end, it’s just rust,” Venus said. “There is nothing you can do about that except for, you know, not be rusty at some point.”
She is now 0-4 in singles in 2022 but is not done just yet with Arthur Ashe Stadium. Bring on the electricity on Thursday.
Benjamin, on her way back to Baton Rouge, won’t be able to make that session, but she had some parting words as she headed for the front gate in the natural light.
“Be gentle with Venus,” she said. “Please.”