By Jane Voigt
March 14, 2017 — Sixteen years ago Venus Williams walked away from the Indian Wells tennis tournament vowing never to return. She and her family had been viciously maligned, through racist taunts and accusations of match fixing.
Venus, always willing to lean on younger sister Serena for motivation and guidance, is back at the BNP Paribas Open, in part because of Serena’s return in 2015.
“Yeah, Serena came to play here a couple years ago, so that was, of course, the first step,” Venus told the press Sunday, after struggling to beat Jelena Jankovic, 1-6, 7-6, 6-1, in Williams’ first round at the Indian Wells Tennis Center since 2001. “She did so much. I was really proud of her for that. Made it easy for me.”
Venus, now 36, lost that opening set to Jankovic in 20 minutes. Williams looked slow, unfit and nervous. Her right arm was tightly wrapped above and below her elbow, as if injured. Her serves were less than ideal, many clocked under 90 mph … slow for a Williams’ sister. Venus lost all of her service games in that set, breaking Jankovic once to get on the scoreboard.
“Yeah, I think just trying to get focused,” she began. “You have to get disciplined and just try to deal with what’s at hand and use the tools you have on this particular day.”
She said she was ‘wrapping’ her head around ‘all that.’ Jankovic won this tournament in 2010, so she’s always dangerous. Coming into this match the two were 10-9, head-to-head. The Serbian had the edge Nerves, too, could have fooled with Venus. No one’s immune to them. But a seasoned 24-year pro has intuitive avenues few can access, ones that block the frivolous distractions and ones that help her concentrate.
She concentrated so well that she saved three match points, after having been down 1-4 in the second set. And no matter how old this saying gets, it rang true for Venus. “It ain’t over until it’s over. I didn’t see no fat lady singing.”
Yesterday, Venus was much better prepared for her third-round win. She eliminated Lucie Safarova, 6-4, 6-2, doing a happy dance on court immediately afterward. This is Venus at her best … happy. It’s also Venus at her most dominant.
The victory propelled her to her first fourth round at Indian Wells since 2001, opening the possibility of a deeper drive to the finish as she had done in Melbourne. Although she lost in the final there to Serena, the bump to her confidence could prove to be that extra dollop of motivation needed to get her across the finish line in Indian Wells.
Her second-place win Melbourne was her first final at a major since Wimbledon, 2009. In January, they stood across the net from each other as best friends and fierce competitors. Serena knew that Venus has always been the toughest player to face. She knows Serena’s game. She knows Serena’s faults. She knew Serena wanted that title, a 7th Australian Open and a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam. But Venus wanted it, too.
This desire to win has never left Venus alone on court. She will never quit the game while she can still compete. She’s seeded number 12 at Indian Wells, the oldest woman in the singles draw. Her longevity is awesome. Her will to fight is awesome. Her contributions to women’s tennis are difficult to measure. However, 10 years ago she fought hard for equal prize money for women players.
“Oh, my gosh,” she said. “It’s a 10-year anniversary? Bananas! Boy, did time fly. I don’t think anyone thought we were going to get there that fast. I was ready to fight for, like, a number of years then, all of a sudden, everyone gathered together. Everyone was able to communicate. The Grand Slams were able to find common ground. It was wonderful to see all the bodies of tennis working together like that. That was the most surprising part.”
The fight drives Venus. “My current battle involves me getting closer to No. 1. That’s the biggest battle I’m fighting right now. It’s rather selfish perhaps.”
Being on tour for 24 years is selfish, you could say. It doesn’t matter, though. We hope she carries on for years to come. We welcome her return to the California desert, too.
Venus will next meet Shuai Peng of China. Venus leads in their head-to-head competition, 2-1. They last played in Beijing, 2016, when Shuai won, 7-5, 6-1.