Venus Williams lost this past weekend in the opening round of the singles and doubles competitions at the Olympics. She had never lost in doubles before, having won the gold medal in 2000, 2008, and 2012. She also won the gold in singles in 2000.
For tennis, the Olympics are not in the same league as the major championships: the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, and, of course, Wimbledon. Many still consider the latter to be the most important tournament of the year even though it is a throwback: it is played at a private club on a surface, grass, that most recreational players never step foot on.
Had tennis been part of the Olympics in the ’70s, it may well have become more significant than the Australian or even the French. During that decade, the Australian was struggling in all kinds of ways — the timing, venue(s), and distance. It was more like a national championships, say like the U.S. Clay Courts, with a few players from other countries, than a truly international competition. The French missed out in the ’70s from legends who at that time opted for World Team Tennis, Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong to name just a few.
But by the time tennis returned as a full medal sport at the 1988 Summer Olympics, the four major championships that are called the Grand Slam tournaments were a destination for every top player in the world. The Olympics, not as much.
Still, plenty of tennis legends have won Olympic medals in singles and doubles. Names like Federer, Graf, Davenport, the Bryan brothers, and the Williams sisters among them. Venus and Serena treat the event like many Olympians in other sports do, talking fondly and with reverence of the once-in-a-lifetime experience, and gearing up every four years for it.
Venus had a stellar summer this year, reaching the singles semifinals of Wimbledon, where she won the doubles with Serena, and again firmly establishing herself in the world’s Top 10.
The Olympic women’s tennis coach has stated that Venue had been sick coming into Brazil for the games, but this still feels like the end of an era. Not to be maudlin, but Venus is 36. She has many miles on her legs, and most tournaments these days are played on hard courts. (I’ve been lucky enough to play many years on grass and clay because I worked at clubs that had those surfaces.)
I hope we still have a few years with Venus on the tennis circuit even if she does not compete in another Olympics. She remains a phenomenal athlete with understated charisma on the court, and over many years has been a gracious champion of her sport. Her role in promoting gender equality at Wimbledon and the French Open is just one example.
My only question is what if the losses come more frequently? As an elite athlete, could she make peace with that? When Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova started losing more regularly in earlier rounds in tournaments — unthinkable during their peak years — they retired from singles competition. That saved a little heartache for their devoted fans, me included, who wanted to see them leave the game as champions.
Like most things in life, it’s not a straightforward decision, but whatever happens, I hope Venus will do what is right for Venus. We’ve been so lucky that she has been a shining star for decades.