The thirty-nine-year-old elder is in her twilight. In a sleek black dress, the black hero seemed to float. One sensed she was above it all as she projected a certain “I’ve seen it all” air. Maybe she has.
Williams first emerged on the pro circuit when she made her debut right here in the Bay Area at the Oakland Coliseum in 1994. The wispy kid with beads in her hair won her first match. Now, 25 years later, in the golden light of a San Jose sunset, she was winning again. The lady had defied time. Her sister is Serena, but it’s hard not to relish Venus’ serenity. She fought for a 7-6 first-set win over another American, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who in four tries, had never beaten her.
Like last year, a Williams was the leading light of the struggling Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. The Bay Area’s longstanding WTA tournament had been banished after 2017 from Stanford’s leafy Palo Alto campus. Now, at its new San Jose State University home, it needed star power. As in 2018, Grand Slam champs had already withdrawn due to injury. Spain’s glamorous two-time Slam winner Garbine Mugurza had sent her regrets. But now, unlike last year, when Serena lost in the first round to Jo Konta 6-1, 6-0, Venus was winning. Her forehand had depth. Hopes were high. Tournament organizers were smiling.
Then the light fell – and so did Venus. Mattek-Sands found her strokes. Her volleys scored winners, her angles were severe – she made Venus run, and turned around the match. She hardly looked like the No. 674 player in the world.
Suddenly the grand lady’s game seemed less than grand. She dropped 12 of the final 16 games and fell 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-1. For the second year in a row, a Williams lost in the opening round. Once again Bay Area fans were sad.
Not surprisingly, the 31-year old Mattek-Sands was quite jolly, even cheesy. Reared in the dairy state, Wisconsin, she played her fromage card, saying “I smelled some grilled cheese sandwiches at the end…and that’s really what got me through to the finish line.” What others smelled was trouble. In a tourney with few great calling cards, an icon had fallen. Then the WTA’s appealing philosopher-in-residence, Andrea Petkovic, suffered a 6-0, 6-3 loss to American Madison Brengle, who had just won a tourney at the Berkeley Tennis Club.
Now it will be left to others to carry the torch. There’s the battling Belarusian mother Vika Azarenka, Gael Monfils’ gal – world No. 7 Elina Svitolina, or the good old CoCo of tennis, CoCo Vandeweghe. Saturday night will feature a men’s exhibition with Andy Roddick and James Blake. But once again the WTA’s historic tourney will not have a Williams drawing cheers. It doesn’t seem right.