Venus rises to meet latest challenge

It may be sixteen years since she won her first Wimbledon title, and eight years since she won her fifth, but everyone is talking about Venus Williams. The 36-year-old reached her first semi-final since 2009 after beating Yaroslava Shvedova to prove that despite some commentators, pundits and fans believing her best years are behind her, she is still in with a shot at the Grand Slam.

But standing in the way of a ninth Wimbledon final is the German Angelique Kerber, who is playing some sublime tennis, has yet to drop a set in SW19, and who saw off Simona Halep 7-5, 6-4, in the quarter-final.

However, despite the imminent threat from the Australian Open champion, Venus’s comeback is nothing short of remarkable. She was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s Syndrome in 2011 and saw her world ranking plummet to 105, the first time she has dropped outside the world top 50 since 1997.

It is a cruel disease, leaving her feeling chronically fatigued, and has robbed her of some of her best years of tennis. Even so, Venus remains at peace with what has happened to her. After qualifying for the semi-final, she said: “The most difficult part of the journey is not being in control. As an athlete, you’re used to being in control, being able to work for anything. Not being able to do that is a challenge.

“It was a relief for me to know what was wrong with me because I hadn’t felt well in a while. That was, ‘OK, I’m not crazy’. That was a good moment. This has been my life. What can I say? I wouldn’t wish it any other way. It’s been a beautiful life. It’s been a great experience, it’s been everything.

“It’s easy to be afraid, you have to let fear go. And another lesson I’ve learnt is you just have to believe in yourself. There’s no other way around it. No matter how things are stacked against you, you just have to every time. I’ve been blessed, really blessed to have an opportunity to be here, and have had the opportunity in the past to do this. I don’t have any regrets about anything that’s taken place in between. It’s been a journey, but it’s made me stronger.”

With Sister Serena, the defending champion, in the other semi-final, where she meets the Russian Elena Vesnina, there is the real prospect of an all-Williams final once again. It will provide an added inspiration for Venus, not that either sister is thinking that way just yet.

Venus said: “We don’t really talk about that because we are both focused on the next match. Even though we both won today, our opponents played really well. We actually have to get out there and play well to win. It’s very focused. We’re focused on the moment because we have to be.”

Serena, who is also playing doubles with Venus, and enjoyed three wins for the family on Tuesday, admires her sister’s determination. “She has a lot of perseverance, she’s a real fighter. It’s super-inspiring for me, it’s really great and it means a lot,” the 34-year-old said. “With everything she’s been through, I think it’s built a ton of character in her, and in me just by being around her. So it’s been really great.

“I’m surprised at the longevity of it [our story]. That definitely took me by surprise. When you’re younger and you have a dream and you say it and you believe it, that’s one thing. But for it to really happen and to come true, it’s just a completely different emotion.”

Fellow US Grand Slam champion Tracey Austin has been similarly awe-struck. She said: “Venus came off the Tour for a while and most people were thinking, ‘If she comes back to play, will she be able to play as well? Will she have the motivation if she doesn’t play as well? Can she handle the tiredness?’ She’s talked about how some days she wakes up and she’s absolutely exhausted, and she doesn’t know which days they are going to be, so I have tremendous respect for Venus.

“She believes in herself and she always stays positive. The fact that in 2014 she was resurgent and back into the top 20, then in 2015 she was back in the top 10 at 35 years old, that’s really impressive. And now she’s back into the semi-finals.

“If you were to pick one tournament where she was going to have that breakthrough it would be here at Wimbledon because her game is tailor-made for this surface – a big serve, powerful, flat ground-strokes, and the ability to finish points in the forecourt.”

But the pragmatic Austin still expects Serena to prevail, and expects Kerber to be her opponent in Saturday’s final. She said: “I would like to see one more Williams final here. I think it would be nice nostalgia and very emotional, particularly for Venus, and a cherry on top for her career. It could happen. But I’d say it’s about 60-40 for Kerber.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.

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