Venus Williams’ second round encounter with World No. 24 Qinwen Zheng at the Western & Southern Open might not have ended the way she had hoped, but the 43-year-old nevertheless showed why she might be worth watching in New York for more than just sentimental reasons.
After knocking off world No. 16 Veronika Kudermetova in the first round, Williams jumped out to a commanding 6-1 lead on Zheng before winning just three games the rest of the way. Although she clearly hit a wall in her efforts to set up a third round showdown with world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, she showed that she belonged by hanging with two top-25 opponents.
The win over Kudermetova gave Williams her first Top 20 triumph in almost exactly four years, having knocked off then-world No. 5 Kiki Bertens in the second round of the same Cincinnati Masters event in 2019 (the matches occurred four years and one day apart). More significantly, the surprise run in her home country may have afforded the ageless tennis legend a much-needed confidence boost ahead of what could be her last US Open.
Then again, maybe it isn’t her last appearance. Given the normal age of retirement in the sport, one could’ve said the same thing regarding any tournament that Willliams has entered over the past few years. Yet while clearly not at the level she once was, she continues to demonstrate a dedication to fitness and conditioning (Wednesday’s collapse notwithstanding) and a desire to be out on the court.
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Williams has played nine matches in 2023. While not an eye-popping number, it does represent a higher total than she managed in all of last year. Currently ranked No. 533 in the world, she is two years older than anyone else in the WTA Tour rankings (Japan’s 41-year-old Junri Namigata is ranked No. 675) and five years older than anyone with a higher ranking (at 38, Kaia Kanepi still holds a ranking of No. 133).
Critics might point to the fact that Williams is the beneficiary of many wild card entries into events that her ranking wouldn’t otherwise leave her eligible for, including the upcoming US Open. Being an American probably helps, but so does being a seven-time Grand Slam champion. She remains a fan favorite and a draw all over the world, so why wouldn’t WTA tournaments want to grant her a wild card?
Williams’ showing in Cincinnati highlighted all the possible scenarios in play for her New York experience in a few week’s time. Even at 43, she still boasts the firepower and athleticism to keep up with many of the game’s top players. Having the stamina to outlast rivals in three-set matches, however, is another matter.
Make no mistake, though: Williams is not sticking around for nostalgia, but because she still feels like she has something left. One year after Serena Williams bid farewell to tennis at the year’s final Major, her older sister is still going strong, set to prove that her age and her ranking are just numbers.
Main Photo Credit: Cara Owsley-USA TODAY Sports