If ever there was a piece of information to illustrate the extraordinary fact that Venus Williams is playing her 20th Wimbledon, consider this: when she made her debut here, her third round opponent in the 2017 edition of The Championships was four months away from being born.
Naomi Osaka, 19, was playing just the third match of her career on the lawns of SW19.
Compare and contrast to Williams, for whom this encounter was her 98th joust at the All England Club. Some will tell you that youth is over-rated as a commodity, and in this case it proved to be true.
In the warmth of a No.1 Court evening, Williams fended off Osaka’s non-stop attack to come through 7-6(3), 6-4 in one hour and 25 minutes. She will play the No.27 seed Ana Konjuh for a place in the quarter-finals.
“When we walked on court I don’t think either of us was thinking about age,” said Venus afterwards. “We were just thinking about how to win. She played an amazing match and deserved to win. These kind of matches are so close.
I’ve had zero breathing room in any of the three matches I’ve played so far. I’ve had to step it up in each one and I imagine that’s going to continue.”
Osaka – the “Bullet Train” as some have nicknamed her – is an intriguing prospect, having now reached the last 32 at every Grand Slam. With four top 20 wins already to her name, she added the No.22 seed Barbora Strycova to her notable scalps in an excellent second round win here.
For those to whom she is unfamiliar, she has an interesting back story.
Her father is from Haiti and her mother Japanese, and the family moved to the US when Naomi was three. With dual American/Japanese nationality, she chose to play under the flag of her mother’s nation. Her idol growing up was Williams – meaning Serena, rather than Venus. Nonetheless, before this match she said she felt as if she had been preparing for it all her life.
From the off here, the strategy devised by Osaka and her coach David Taylor (Sam Stosur’s former mentor) was not difficult to spot – all-out aggression was the name of the game. Initially hindered by understandable nerves on No.1 Court at her debut Championships, Osaka fell 1-4 behind as Venus sent the ball low over the net and disrupted her rhythm.
But against the five-time Wimbledon winner, the debutante didn’t lose heart. Instead that policy of going for her shots began to pay dividends, and her 120mph serve was not only faster than her opponent’s but racking up more aces. Williams’ level dipped a touch and Osaka got back to 4-4, biding her time for second serve opportunities to go on the offensive.
In the tie-break Osaka leapt off to 3-0 with a trio of punchy winners, and perhaps started thinking of the second set. Whatever the case, Venus called on two decades of experience and snapped off seven straight points.
The start of the second saw a change in the pace of the match as each dug in, determined not to give ground. But at 3-3 a truly horrible backhand volley from Osaka had the Japanese gazing in disbelief as the ball arched yards out, and it gave Williams a crucial opening.
One particular statistic relating to this win highlighted (if it were needed) the achievement of Venus in making the second week here. She has now reached the fourth round of her most recent six Grand Slams – the kind of consistency in the majors that she has not managed since her salad days of 2003.
Some time or other, she will have to stop competing. Will she miss this place then?
“No, I’ll be fine,” she said. “It will be nice to get a life. There are always other chapters, and I’ve definitely lived this one. I’m still living it. I love this game. I’ll always in my heart be a tennis player. There will be something missing without the competition. But I’m not there yet.”
Somewhere in an attic at her home in Florida, there must be a portrait of a retired tennis player. But at Wimbledon 2017, Venus Williams – 37 years young – is still going strong.
Source: Kate Battersby| Wimbledon