Venus Williams in the space and she is not for moving
Tennis star has found a form of control to make Wimbledon decisions without emotion
Venus Williams celebrates her win over Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in their quarter-final match at Wimbledon. Photograph: EPA/Nic Bothma
All week the emotional stillness of Venus Williams has been as noticeable as the crash and ping of her pounding racquet. Like a head of state or monarch, the 37-year-old has found a space for herself at her 20th Wimbledon that can only come from having trodden the path so many times before.
The older of the two sisters has found a centre point, and whether it has been serenely dismissing press conference questions not to her taste or hitting a second serve t 106 mph, her centre doesn’t move.
In practical terms Williams has found a form of control, an ability to make decisions in this two-week bubble, without the unhelpful freight of emotion or fear or even joy.
She is the method actress, a sporting Daniel Day Lewis. When the rest of the cast are on down time having their meal break, she is still Christy Brown making a noise for someone to put food in her mouth, or going to the bathroom still carrying the musket.
“I’m just out there competing,” she said after beating Johanna Konta in the semifinal. “I try to produce whatever I can at that time. There is no plan or anything like that. I don’t plan. I’m just trying to compete.”
More than 20 years as a professional, five Wimbledon titles, 49 singles titles and the oldest player to advance to the Wimbledon final since runner-up Martina Navratilova in 1994 – and no plan.
It can sometimes seem like an affectation but the otherness to Williams is a recurring theme. She was asked this week a simple question. Can you talk a little about the Williams standing here having that responsibility (to win) on your own. And also will you talk to Serena about Garbine (Muguruza) since she played her last time she was in a final?
“Yeah,” Venus sighed. “Serena did play her in a final. I don’t know when that happened. I definitely will ask her. I’m sure she is going to give me some things that will make a difference for me in the match...I don’t remember the other part of the question.”
Her strength has always been self-belief side by side with the dizzy, abstract Williams. It serves her well at the mandatory press conferences, which she often holds in barely concealed contempt.
Even on her comeback trail from the debilitating Sjogrens Syndrome, the little known autoimmune disorder that in 2011 caused her fatigue and joint pain, the belief in her ability could easily have hit a fault line. It didn’t.
It was sometimes recalibrated. First, be healthy. Then be healthy enough to practice. Be healthy enough to compete, to beat another player, to make it to the second week of a Grand Slam and now she has entered that hall of greats with Virgina Wade, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King as one of the oldest players to make it to the second week.
Navritilova did it in 1994, a Wimbledon final at 37-years-old. Wade did it in 1983, a quarterfinal at 37, and Billy Jean King did it in 1982, a semifinal at 38. Then King did it again the following year at 39.
“Yeah, for me it’s about betting on myself every time,” said Williams after beating Konta. “When I look across the net I don’t think it is right mentally to believe in that person more than me. It doesn’t mean that I have won every time. But I’ve tried to give myself the best chance no matter what the circumstances were.”
She says she liked watching Boris Becker when she was young because he “played big”. She says she has not watched any of the matches of her final opponent Muguruza at this year’s tournament. Not even her semifinal.
She says she’s not exactly sure what the Spaniard is doing, and with a chilling dollop of chutzpah adds “I’ll have to see what happens in the final”.
She sometimes forgets the score. She rarely asks for a Hawkeye challenge. In her quarterfinal against Jelena Ostapenko she thought a called-out ball was in and took a step towards the chair. She had three challenges and it was the final match of the set. She walked away and served again.
She doesn’t remember the plays or moments in her matches. She couldn’t recall Konta double faulting on her very first serve. Her only interest is what it takes to win the point in front of her. The other things can manage themselves.
“I’m not one of those players that remembers all the plays,” she says. “I’m sorry. Wish I was. Sorry.
“Even though this is entertainment, for the players it is complete and pure focus. You don’t see anything or hear anything except the ball and what’s going on in your head. That wave [when the match is over] is finally a moment of...I can enjoy this moment before I go off court.”
There was a time she appeared on Centre Court, her long hair braided with purple and green beads. At 6ft 1in a stunning image. The first impulse was to offer votives, place shells at her feet.
Soon after she won her first Wimbledon title in 2000, when she beat fellow American Lindsay Davenport. The following year it was another final, this time Justine Henin taken in three sets. Names long gone from the locker room.
Her last win on Centre Court was against her sister in 2008, long enough in the past to allow herself to believe that a sixth win for Venus is as precious as a first for Muguruza.
“It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to play well and to be strong and have experience,” she says deliberately avoiding the word age.
“I think experience can either work against you or for you. I like to think it is working for me.”
She’s in the space. For one more day she is not moving.