EVEN FOR the golden oldies, the good old days don’t last forever in tennis, writes RON REED:
VENUS WILLIAMS’ 2017 fairytale renaissance hasn’t taken long to come to a crashing halt in 2018. After reaching the finals of the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the Women’s Tennis Association’s year-end championship, as well as the semi-finals of the US Open, last year the senior sister lost her only match at the Sydney tournament last week, to the accomplished Angelique Kerber, and was equally swiftly ejected on day one of the Open by the less well-known Swiss miss Belinda Bencic in straight sets, 6-3 7-5.
So, was this the first big upset of the tournament? Arguably, perhaps – Williams was the No 5 seed and runner-up last year and Bencic is ranked 76 (and was on the wrong side of 300 at one stage last year) and was a first-round loser 12 months ago. She had never beaten Venus in four previous attempts. But this is a classic case of statistics distorting reality.
Bencic’s rapid exit last time was because she was unlucky enough to draw the other Williams, Serena – the more or less unbeatable one. And her ranking is an unfortunate illusion. It has been as high as seven in early 2016 and blew out so spectacularly only because injury put her off the scene for five months. When she returned late last year, she won 28 of 31 matches and four titles and surged back into more respectable rankings territory. She began this year by winning the Hopman Cup in Perth with her illustrious compatriot Roger Federer – whose parents were in her box for the Williams match – so she can certainly play and she is in form. So, stand by to hear more about her.
The result did not emit too many shockwaves, except that it is highly unusual for the Open to be a sister-free zone almost before it has started, especially given that they both made it all the way to the final last year. It is the first time since 1997 that the Open has been without a Williams come the second round. How long ago was that? Thanks to stats wizard Joshua Kay, back then Steffi Graf was No 1 in the world, Martina Hingis hadn’t won a Grand Slam, Toger Woods hadn’t won a golf major, Rafael Nadal was in primary school and the AFL’s games record-holder Boomer Harvey had played one game.
For Venus watchers, last year’s heroics were a bigger surprise than a first round loss, this one being her third in five years. Serena, of course, is on maternity leave so if nothing else the women’s draw – also missing dual champion Victoria Azarenko, who is confined to California because of a child custody dispute – is more replete with possibility than might otherwise be the case.
The first arrivals at Rod Laver Arena were left to ponder the vagaries of the generation gap in tennis, a sport that is more forgiving in that respect than many others. You only had to tune into the Open last year – or, indeed, the whole tennis year – to see Roger Federer, then 35, prove that yet again. Now 36, he’s favourite to win again. Serena, 36, became the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam tournament in the Open era and did it while she was pregnant – so how important is age, especially in a game that does not involve body contact?
Well, the first two matches on centre court involved the two oldest women in the draw, Venus and Italy’s Francesca Schiavone, who are both 37 – plus 212 days in the former’s case, six fewer for the latter. They were almost twice as old as their opponents, Bencic and Jelena Ostapenko, who are both 20, and both were made to look inadequate. The young ones were barely born when the older women first started playing the Open, which was last century for Venus. “I used to watch Serena and Venus on TV when I was little girl, never dreaming I would play them one day and now I am, it’s amazing. I was a huge underdog,” Bencic said.
Schiavone has never really been a star – she is best known for denying Australia’s Sam Stosur the French Open in 2010 and, perhaps by way of revenge by the Australian tennis gods, this was her fifth successive failure to win a match in Melbourne – but Williams, of course, brings much more to the table in terms of reputation and accomplishment as well as a perennial popularity so it is never a matter for celebration when she is made to look ordinary. That’s why last year’s final had such a sense of occasion, even if the result was utterly predictable.
Venus and Schiavone head a list of 19 players aged in their 30s in this year’s draw, while there were just a handful teenagers. One of them, qualified Marta Kostyuk, from Ukraine, was the youngest at just 15 but immediately made a mark when she defeated China’s Peng Shuai 6-2 6-2. That means she will walk away with at least $90,000 for reaching the second round, a handy step up from her career prizemoney so far of just $8476.
So, what’s better – youth or experience? Well, the Open era began in 1968, half a century ago, which means there have been 200 Grand Slam tournaments. Twelve teenagers have won 33 of them, the last being Maria Sharapova at the 2006 US Open and the youngest Martina Hingis, at 16, at the 1997 Australian Open.
Older women have been less successful. Nine 30-somethings have won 24 of the majors, with Serena accounting for 10 of those, three of which have been since she took the record from Martina Navratilova, who was 33 and 263 days when she won the last of her nine Wimbledons and 18 titles in 1990. That, however, was far from the end of Navratilova, who was still able to win a singles match at Wimbledon when she was 47 and 235 days.
In many contexts it is considered impolite to focus on a lady’s age but in elite sport it is always an inescapable and crucial element, a truism that was not challenged on Monday.
Last time there was no Williams sister in the @AustralianOpen 2nd round:
Graf was #1 in the world;
Hingis hadn't won a singles slam;
Tiger hadn't won a major;
Rafa was in primary school;
Boomer Harvey had played 1 game
— Joshua Kay (@js_kay) January 15, 2018
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.