No one stayed in their seat as 43-year-old Venus Williams left Wimbledon’s Center Court on Monday after losing to Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-3. All of the nearly 15,000 spectators stood and showered her with applause, and shouts of “We love you, Venus” could be heard throughout the stadium.
Williams, five-time champion of the tournament, didn’t seem moved by the crowd’s reaction. She waved her left hand while walking as fast as she could, despite a noticeable limp.
Williams played as a wildcard in his record-breaking 24th main draw appearance at Wimbledon, breaking a tie with Martina Navratilova for the most players in the Open era. While there was speculation that this would be her last game at the All England Club, Williams was silent on her future plans. However, it was clear that this was not a ceremonial game. She wanted to win – and believed that she could do just that.
“I’ve survived a lot of injuries and won a lot of games injured,” Williams said after the game. “It’s almost a specialty of mine. I just didn’t find out today.”
After playing sparingly in previous seasons and picking up a hamstring injury in Auckland in January, Williams returned to the competition last month. She lost in her first match at the Libema Open but bounced back the next week in Birmingham, defeating Camila Giorgi in a marathon match that lasted well over three hours and fighting three hard-fought sets against eventual winner Jelena Ostapenko .
At the start of Monday’s first-round match against Svitolina, it seemed as if Williams’ momentum could last as she comfortably won the first two games. But then Williams fell at the net in the fourth game and screamed as she fell to the ground. As she clutched her already wrapped right knee, it seemed like her tournament was over prematurely. However, after a short medical break, she returned to court. She kept fighting, her movement was clearly hampered, but it wasn’t enough against Svitolina. The game ended with an overvoted challenge. Neither player seemed happy that it ended like this.
While the loss was understandably disappointing for Williams, the actual outcome of the game was irrelevant to many of her teammates. Her mere presence seemed to be the most important thing. “I think her still out there just shows her passion and how much she loves to compete and play,” Jessica Pegula, the top-ranked American, said over the weekend. “I think it is awesome.”
Williams made his Wimbledon debut in 1997 – when Svitolina was just two years old and before many of the draw participants were even born. Williams has been a fixture in women’s tennis for nearly 30 years. Her 49 career singles titles, including seven majors, her four Olympic gold medals and 98 wins on grass are legendary. But they are only part of their history and importance to the sport. She’s paved the way for black players, advocated – and enforced – equal prize money at tournaments like Wimbledon, and overcame a difficult autoimmune disease.
“The way Venus comes and fights and still does what she wants is really admirable,” Victoria Azarenka said on Monday. “Because it’s so easy to commit to outcomes, expectations and everything else. Then, you know, those moments where there’s hardly any inspiration, I definitely take it for myself.”
Fans could be heard throughout Monday’s game trying to lure Williams back into the game. Cheers like “One point after the other, Venus!” and “You got that, V!” could be heard. Always known for her tenacity, Williams said she never considered dropping out of the game because of the injury.
“I was trying to figure out how to win the game and fight to survive another day,” she said matter-of-factly.
Coco Gauff, who idolized Williams and her sister Serena as a child and defeated Williams in Gauff’s Wimbledon debut in 2019, said her competitive fire is inspirational.
“I don’t think love [for tennis] has changed over the course of her career,” said Gauff on Saturday. “I think you’re seeing older women players now, and you can feel like they probably don’t love it as much as they did when they started.” I don’t have that feeling with Venus. I hope I feel the same.”
Recognition for a great champion.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 3, 2023
Williams, currently ranked 558, has not commented publicly on a possible retirement and insists she would never tell the media about such plans. With numerous successful ventures and interests outside of tennis, and her candid comments about missing her sister on tour since Serena retired last year, it would hardly be surprising if Venus decided to walk away. But when asked in her press conference if she would play the US Open later this summer, she said she wasn’t sure.
“I have to think of my next plan,” Williams said. “Right now I’m kind of in shock. I just can’t believe this happened. It’s bizarre. I don’t know it. I’m still processing it at the moment.”
On the other hand, in an interview with the press on Saturday, she didn’t entirely dismiss the question of playing over 50.
“This has never been done before. So if there was anyone who could try, it would be me.”