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Ageless phenomenon Venus Williams returns to ASB Classic

Author
NZ Herald,
Section
Tennis,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 1 January 2019, 12:11PM
Venus Williams. Photo / Getty
Venus Williams. Photo / Getty

As she begins yet another campaign, Venus Williams refuses to put a timeline on the end of her career.

The veteran American, who has helped redefine the term 'ageless' in sport, begins her 25th year as a professional tennis player today in Auckland.

To put her longevity in perspective, when she took her first bow on the tour, Jim Bolger was Prime Minister, Steffi Graf was world No 1, Jeff Wilson was a flashy All Blacks winger and Jacinda Ardern was a student at Morrinsville College.

But Williams keeps going in one of the most physically gruelling and mentally demanding sports.

The 38-year-old has broken all kinds of barriers and stayed relevant well into her fourth decade.

Williams reached two grand slam finals in 2017, including Wimbledon, an extraordinary feat 20 years after her first final at SW19.

Last year was less productive but she still made a run to the semifinals at Indian Wells, regarded as the fifth grand slam, beating sister Serena on the way, and reached the last eight in Miami and San Jose.

She has remained inside the top 40 (39) — but how long can she go on?

"There are so many theories out there but I'm not going to confirm or deny anything," said Williams. "I'm just going to shroud it with mystery, try to keep winning matches and everyone will have to wait and see."

Despite the constant grind of training, travelling and tournaments, Williams still enjoys the purity of the sport, the competitiveness and being on tour with sister Serena.

"It takes a lot of focus, a lot of determination, it's just you out there," said Williams. "So it takes a lot of responsibility. But I'm up for it ... that's all I can say. The best part is still being able to do what you love, and do it well.

"If you aren't doing it well, you don't tend to have too many options. But we still both play amazing tennis and we deserve to be here."

And Williams still has a magnetism few other players, or female athletes possess. That was seen yesterday when the American wandered through the ASB Tennis Centre, ahead of an appearance with sponsor Jaguar. Word spread and soon a crowd had gathered. When she finished, Williams was like the Pied Piper, as a horde followed her back to the practice court.

That's been typical of the Venus effect since she first came to the Queen City in 2014. She has helped put the tournament on the map, packed out the stadium and charmed everyone she has met.

Auckland loves Williams and the feeling is mutual.

"I came here the first time and everyone was so kind to me," said Williams. "It's become a feeling of a second home. It has been very nice to be welcomed and it really doesn't happen in a lot of places. [And] if you can't be relaxed here, I don't know what to tell you."

Unfortunately for the sixth-seeded Williams, she has the toughest possible draw for a first-round match, as Victoria Azarenka looks a fearsome proposition.

Azarenka (29) has reunited with former coach Wim Fissette, who took her to a run of strong results in 2016, before she became a mother, and is coming off her first full off-season since then. It's hard to imagine her ranking (51) will stay that low for long.

Williams has had the edge in their previous encounters, though they haven't met on tour since 2015.

Defending ASB Classic champion Julia Goerges also takes the court today, against Swedish veteran Johanna Larsson.

No female player has won more matches in Auckland than Goerges (20), who finally broke through last year on her ninth appearance here.

The world No 12 will be favoured to progress past the 75th-ranked Larsson, though the Swede has prevailed in their last three encounters.

ON AIR: Daniel McHardy Afternoons

1PM - 4PM