January 21, 2011 -- It was a day for records. Roger Federer broke Stefan Edberg's 57-match record at the Australian Open. And Venus Williams retired for the first time at a major.
No one jumped for joy as she reached for a ball and winced in pain, after seven points. She hobbled to the sideline, awaiting the trainer and the decision she had to face. She couldn't move, that was obvious. Her right hip was injured in the previous round. She wasn't ready today -- her body wasn't ready. Venus had never been in this situation, not once in her 17 years on the WTA Tour. This was Venus's 251st match at a major.
Andrea Petkovic, Venus's opponent, felt the sadness that hung in the air.
Normally Petkovic is an up-beat gal. She's funny, in fact. When she wins a match she performs a silly dance on court and fans laugh and she waves, all in good fun. But she made sure the world knew this wasn't a moment for levity as she stopped to talk with Lindsey Davenport.
"It's a pity," Petkovic said. "I feel very sorry for Venus. I hope she gets better because she's such a great champion. It's players like her that pull the people out to Grand Slams."
The Australian Open is the only major Venus hasn't conquered. Whether she would've gone on to the final is questionable. This was her first tournament of the year. She was flying under the radar, as they say. Not many picked her to win. Had she poked her head into next week, all bets would've been off. She likes to win, wants to win, and drives herself hard to win. She's always been that way.
"It's super disappointing," Venus said in her press conference. "This is not how I envisioned my Australian Open being. I've never had to retire from a Grand Slam, especially after working so hard to pull out the match like the other day. [I was] just hoping for some magic I could recover. But I have peace of mind I gave more than my best to be out there."
Richard Williams, Venus's father, told his wife Oracene that their daughter Venus was a champion the same day the four-year-old hit her first tennis balls in Compton, California. How he knew Venus would be a champion wasn't completely clear, as her father spoke with Fran Healy on Comcast Sport Network's broadcast of The Game 365.
Richard knew he had a daughter that would fulfill his dreams of revolutionizing the game of tennis. Call it faith.
He raised her, and Serena, in the ghetto to teach them toughness. "Only champions come out of a ghetto," Richard told Healy. "They're [Venus and Serena] rough and tough, mentally sound."
Papa Williams thought better neighborhoods raised less responsible kids, less hungry. Those kids got everything. When Venus arrived home after a tournament, she had to wash dishes and mow the lawn.
Richard taught Venus his brand of tennis. "Venus was taught to hit the person off the court. Hit the ball on the rise. Don't hit moon balls." Richard readily admits he learned the sport from books. But it was Venus who sparked the dream and ignited a legendary career.
"I'm Venus Williams and you're not. If you can come out here and beat me, then go ahead," Richard said, characterizing the attitude Venus took with her to matches.
Venus's close-knit family and their focus on education broadened the elder sister's view of the world. There was life outside of tennis. Her father wasn't considered her coach, per se. Richard took a dim view of coaches. "They're mean," he said.
You cannot write about Venus without writing about Serena. They can't be separated and shouldn't be. They have revolutionized the game of tennis for women; Richard's dream is a reality. Venus and Serena are the preeminent players of this generation. They hit hard, they take short balls to the bank, and they are as swift as cheetahs.
Well over a month ago, we knew Serena Williams wouldn't defend her title in Melbourne Park. We were prepared. She hadn't played in New York either. She was out of the spotlight. If you hear any tennis pundit's chatter about possible 2011 champs, their predictions include a caveat. Just listen to the tough time Caroline Wozniacki is getting from the press. For example, she's only number one because she plays lots of tournaments and Serena's injured. Wait... whoever wins the title a week from Sunday will be compared, and unfavorably, because Serena isn't in the draw.
Losing is a tough thing for any tour player. Someone has to, though. Venus wrote in the preface of her latest book, Come To Win, "For me, losing is still emotional. When I lose, the pain is so intense, and the emotions roll through me." But Venus has learned.
In 1999, she lost to Martina Hingis in the semifinals of the U. S. Open. The loss taught her a valuable lesson. Don't stand on the baseline, scared. Go forward. In 2000, Venus arrived at Wimbledon clear she would take the title.
"That was my title and no one else's," she wrote in Come To Win.
It was Venus's first Wimbledon title. She has won five to date.
"I'm still pretty good, even when I'm injured," Williams said. "At the Open, I came pretty close to winning just on a hope and a prayer, and little to no preparation. I'm going to focus on getting healthy and coming back. I love tennis. I've got a lot of great tennis in. I love my job, so no end in sight."
Her conviction to return to tennis is the best part of today's unfortunate retirement record.