Sometimes things are just not meant to be.
There would be no fairy tale tonight. Venus Williams – icon and legend – would not be able to defy time. The memory we would take of her from this year’s US Open would be of a newly-minted aunt.
Yes, Venus swept to the the US Open quarters, and would now meet the considerable two-time Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova. At first, things were just dandy for Venus as she called on that long-limbed athleticism we’ve relished for two decades to win the first set, 6-3.
But things are never simple when Venus and the big Czech meet. All seven of their previous matches had gone to three sets. Tonight was no different. Kvitova regrouped and unleashed her big serve, mighty forehand, dangerous backhand and grasped the momentum as she won the second set 6-3, and scored a key break to go up 3-1 in the third.
Venus was now looking her age. No longer the aggressor, she was being run corner to corner. Yes, the grand elder emanates a refined dignity. But this was almost humbling. The Czech was howling – in the zone. American fans were scowling – it’s all right to moan. A begrudging acceptance settled in.
We all knew that Venus had given us two decades of wonder and courage. A loss to a player ten years her junior would certainly be no shame. Plus, American Sloane Stephens was already into the semis, and on Wednesday, Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe would have their shots at making it there, too.
But in the fifth game, the tennis universe tilted. The US Open did a 180. Petra blinked. Her groundies failed. She double-faulted. Venus broke. Everything changed. – Match on!
The American captured the momentum. Then again, her ethos is that tennis matches are not given to you – you have to grab them by the throat, full throttle. Now a full-throated Ashe throng shouted – a rumble under the roof. The power tennis sizzled. Yes, Venus muffed a simple forehand volley to a wide open court – groan. And when a jerk high in the south stands yelled out, “Do it for Serena’s baby!” Venus promptly double-faulted.
Surely, deep within the vaults of the tennis gods, there is some cosmic code that insists that when the aging lady faces the courageous Czech coming back from a nightmare, the match has to go to a third set tie-break. After 2:27, the decisive breaker came.
Ashe silenced – a monastic quiet descended. The stats showed that Kvitova had won every tiebreak the two had played, but Venus had a commanding 10-1 tiebreak record this year – clutch. Surely, the much younger Kvitova would now have more energy. Then again, maybe the woman who told us in Australia, “This old cat still has a lot of tricks in her bag” would call on her battle-forged experience.
So the tiebreak began. Two Kvitova forehands flew long. Then Venus pounced, smacking a forehand winner. Wow, the tennis elder was up 3-1. When it comes to overtime, Venus has a clear mindset. “[In] tiebreakers, you have to play smart but…aggressive. You can’t just sit back and hope. I didn’t want to hope. I wanted to be doing something about my future…In the tiebreaker you just want to create space. So when you see that gap opening bigger in your favor, it feels amazing.”
Venus – fierce and focused – forged forward. Her visor slipped in mid-point – she ignored it.
She raced to a 5-1 lead. Kvitova then double-faulted. Her head dipped. “How could I?”, she seemed to berate herself. Now Venus was just one point from wonder. Could she reach her third Grand Slam semifinal in this year of marvels? Would the woman whose ranking once dipped to triple digits, and who hadn’t been in a US Open semi since 2010, prevail?
But even Picasso’s brush sometimes slips. Venus double-faulted. The crowd gasped. Then Venus foot-faulted. “Please don’t let her wheels come off,” was the collective hope in Ashe.
But no worries, off a routine – well, nothing is routine in a match like this – serve, Kvitova dumped her backhand return into the alley. Venus had won 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(2). The crowd roared – Venus beamed. Her smile defines delight. She gave us her signature victory move – her joyous twirl.
Soon she would thank the crowd and salute her foe. “Everything Petra has gone through – you don’t imagine you’re going to wake up one day and go through that.”
This match was a celebration of an ageless athlete. And the Open also marks a long-awaited triumph for American women. Four of the last six remaining players are Americans. Plus tonight was a celebration of WTA grit.
After all, the match was a contest between a survivor of Sjogren’s Syndrome and a woman who was brutalized by a home invader. And this is in a sport which, going back to Althea Gibson, Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, has featured one gritty comeback or breakthrough story after another.
Venus put that in context, telling IT, “Sport is a little microcosm of life, and it shows the human spirit, just being out there on court, fighting against all odds. If you’re down, you keep going.
“Great champions came back from injuries or circumstances they could never have planned for. It’s very encouraging for people to watch…[Our] champions helped change so many lives, motivated so many people by being their best.”
Venus, the oldest US Open woman semifinalist since Martina Navratilova in 1994, was at her remarkable best – and she certainly inspired.