Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Venus the Valiant

If you've ever doubted that seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams was a true warrior, doubt no more.
-- Last night there were two captivating matches going on at the same time at the Australian Open. On Hisense, Serb Janko Tipsarevic was so mentally distraught by his fourth set implosion against Fernando Verdasco, that he barely possessed the strength to lift his racquet in the fifth. It was sad to see, because Tipsarevic has established a reputation as a warrior and a giant killer on the ATP tour, but yesterday he just flat-out couldn't handle the humiliation he was feeling and he did what nobody should ever do on a tennis court.

Yep, that's right, Tipsarevic quit on himself, he quit on his competitor, and he quit on everyone who was watching in person and on tv when he stood and waved his racquet ineffectually at Verdasco's final ace of the match.

Meanwhile, on Rod Laver, exactly the opposite was happening. Say what you will about Venus William's fashion statements, but you can't doubt the sheer importance of the statement she made to tennis fans on the court yesterday. Janko Tipsarevic might not think fighting for a second round match is worth it when things are looking grim, but Venus Williams certainly does.

Venus got hit hard with a double-whammy at the conclusion of her first set tiebreak yesterday. Not only did Sandra Zahlavova grab the hotly contested first set, but Venus suffered a debilitating muscle pull just prior to the conclusion of the point. What was amazing, is that Venus didn't stop competing when it happened. She hit a few more balls, then grimaced as Zahlavova struck the winner that gave her the set.

What happened next was the stuff of pure legend. Venus, hobbled so badly that she could hardly walk to her chair, went off for a training time out. Venus would later call the pain "sharp and acute" and say she "just needed to calm down and get some treatment." As she gingerly hobbled through the tunnel it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that she would only return to grab her racquets and shake the victors hand.

Could we really expect her to play? This was, after all, the same Venus who has been playing on pins and needles for the last six months. She hasn't been the same, but to her credit, she hasn't complained about it.

Venus barely avoided retirement last year at the 2010 open, and the same knee problems (tendinitis in the left knee, if you really must know) kept her from getting into top shape this off-season.

But here she was, hobbled by a different and altogether more serious and disconcerting injury -- she could barely walk, let alone play -- so imagine our surprise when she calmly emerged from the locker room and unsheathed a fresh Wilson racquet from its plastic bag, and headed to take he place at the baseline.

Can she? Is she? Did she just?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Moments later, it was on. A ginger Venus taking care to not move too much, but also taking care to do what she pretty much always does in the second round of Slams: hit winners and beat her opponent down.

"I think it threw her off a little bit. Clearly I wasn't moving as well, but when I could get my racquet on the ball I tried to do a lot with it, and she gave me some errors," said Venus of the bagel she served Zahlavova in the 48-minute second set.

The third set was very competitive, and as the action rolled toward a conclusion Venus's movement improved to match the stellar play that her Czech opponent was now producing.

All the while the true grit of Venus was shining through. She could have easily packed it in and joined her sister among the walking wounded, and America could have just as easily had no women left in the singles draw. Not so fast, said Venus.

Asked by Tom Rinaldi why a seven-time Grand Slam champ would have so much to prove in the second round of the Australian Open at the age of 30, Venus replied "I guess if I got to the point where I just couldn't move at all then I guess I would have retired. But I haven't retired in a long long time (never in a Grand Slam), and I just keep going to the bitter end.

"It was pretty bitter today," she added, "But it didn't end."

This victory was yet another reason why Americans should be awed by the contributions that Venus has made to American tennis lore. Venus, like she and her sister have done for so many years, showed us the true meaning of valiant out on Rod Laver today.

And those who witnessed, should consider ourselves fortunate that we can now relish in the fact that true champions never quit.

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