Roger Federer was a wonder this year in tennis before he got to the big, bad city, winning his 18th major at the Australian Open and then his 19th at Wimbledon, two months short of his 36th birthday, the oldest man to win Wimbledon in 108 years and the oldest since Arthur Ashe won there at the age of 31 in 1975.
But Venus Williams is as much a wonder, at the age of 37, 20 years after she first made a US Open final, a little less than two months after she fell apart in the second set of a Wimbledon final of her own, against Garbine Muguruza. Venus Ebony Starr Williams has now made it into the second week of her seventh straight major. At the end of the first week, of course, her sister, Serena, gave birth to a daughter.
You know Serena will be back. Venus, who seems to be as happy being a tennis player as she has ever, still does not go away. Maria Sharapova, returning to Grand Slam tennis, from a drug suspension, has been the headliner in the women’s draw across the first week of this Open, winning three straight matches on the court named after Arthur Ashe. But this is another occasion, at the place where it all began for Venus and for this tennis family, to appreciate the fact that there has never been a story quite like this in their sport, or any American sport.
Before Venus and Serena came out of Compton to change everything in tennis, and for two decades, the two African-American champions produced in this country were Ashe and the great Althea Gibson. Now, all this time after Venus made it all the way through the draw to a final against Martina Hingis that she finally lost, she and her sister have won 30 major singles championships between them. And counting. They have won 14 more Grand Slam doubles titles.
And get this, they have played in 44 Grand Slam singles finals in all.
Perhaps the real wisdom on this comes from another old tennis champ, John McEnroe, famously speaking on another matter once:
You cannot be serious.
Once you had Peyton and Eli Manning not just winning consecutive Super Bowls, but being MVPs in those games, and nothing like that will ever happen in professional football. Peyton has retired, Eli keeps going, looking for at least one more Super Bowl himself. But as amazing as this football story is in the Manning family, there is nothing more amazing, one family, in American sports, that what two African-American sisters have done in a predominantly and historically white, and that means really white, sport. And continue to do.
Tiger Woods came along and became the face of golf, and the biggest sports star in the world, until he wasn’t, until everything fell apart on him, his marriage falling apart and his body falling apart. Woods is 41 now, four years older than Venus Williams, and there was a story this week, that Tiger, recovering from his latest surgery, has been given clearance to start “pitching” golf balls. While Venus Williams, who has been running round on tennis courts as a professional for nearly a quarter-century, is still in there pitching at a major.
I saw her play at Wimbledon in July, and thought she could win there with her sister out pregnant. And there she was in the final, going toe-to-toe with Muguruza, who had once beaten Serena in a French Open final – you go through one Williams sister you have to go through the other eventually – and they were dead even going into the 10th game of the first set. Then they played this incredible set point for Venus, slugging it out from the baseline in a striking example of what Mary Carillo once called “Big Babe tennis” (both Muguruza and Venus are six feet tall) in a 19-shot rally that finally ended with Venus burying a forehand into the net.
Muguruza would get out of two set points in that game. It was like she had knocked out Venus Williams right there. Venus never won another game at Wimbledon, losing the second set 6-0. She keeps going anyway. Now she is in the second week of the Open. Her sister has given birth to her first child. She has said she will be back at the Australian Open in January. Both Williams sisters probably will. It just means that the story that began in Compton, two black kids out of there building on their parents’ crazy dream of them dominating tennis, continues. Compton through southern Florida, finally through all the great tennis theaters of the world.
This is a country where race has always been and always will be the third rail, and tries to divide the country, and not just in Charlottesville, with cheap, lousy, loud race baiters again on the rise. This is a country where our sports stars are constantly asked to be activists. Of course that is a fine and noble idea, and ideal. But sometimes the activism can come out of the kind of enduring triumph provided by these two sisters, along with the hope they have carried with them for such a long time, and the possibilities in America.
I don’t know if Venus Williams has another major in her. We will see, when and if her sister comes back, if Serena, with 23 Grand Slam titles to her name, can catch Margaret Court, who once won 24 major singles championships in another time in tennis (11 of them were the Australian, in an era when so few of the top women made the trip over there), and even pass her.
There is no way of knowing if a 37-year-old player can make a run the second week the way Jimmy Connors once did at the Open when he was 39. Venus seemed to have so much left at Wimbledon until the memorable 10th game of the first set of the final, when she punched herself out and had nothing left after that. But appreciate what you are seeing, and what you have seen with these two sisters, 20 years after it began here for the older one. They are the real wonders in tennis. They are American tennis, whether you have rooted for them or not. They are history. Nothing like this will ever happen again, in any sport.
The healing power of sports, the Denis of tennis & the untruths about Kap
– Again: Sports can’t change what Harvey did to Houston.
Again and again: Sports can’t bring back the dead, or the lost homes, or get people out of shelters.
Sometimes the best sports can do, and what Justin Verlander and the Astros might do, is give a wounded city a chance to cheer for a few hours at a time.
We saw it here with the Yankees in the World Series of 2001.
Saw it right away in Boston, five days after the Boston Marathon bombing, when the Red Sox came back to Fenway.
It wasn’t a lot.
Certainly did not change anything for the dead or damaged.
But it sure was something.
Every time I saw the way the citizens of Houston tried to help in any way they could, when we all saw the lines of people looking to volunteer in any way they could, I was reminded of the scenes from old Shea Stadium after Sept. 11 in 2001, the lines of cars trying to get into the parking lot like there was a game going on, there to drop off relief supplies.
I remember Bobby Valentine and the owners and everybody from the Mets throwing themselves into the relief effort, and offering temporary housing for rescue workers who had come from across the country.
That was sports, too.
– I don’t want you to think that I’m stuck on this, but the guys up front are going to give Eli enough time this season, right?
Is it worse to be a Jets fan at this time, or a Knicks fan?
Even when it seemed as if the Orioles couldn’t get a starter through the fifth inning, and seemed to have fallen completely out of things, you looked at the batting order and thought that Machado and Adam Jones had to start hitting eventually.
And so they have.
And have they ever.
– If you haven’t seen the kid from Canada, Denis Shapovalov play yet at the Open, you better.
Because he is, at the age of 19, something to see.
Doug Fister continues to be the unlikeliest current pitching star of the baseball season.
Gives up a leadoff homer to Lindor against the Indians one night, never gives up another hit.
Gives up a run to the Yankees in the first on Friday night, and then doesn’t give them another run through seven.
You know what Fister really did on Friday night?
Pitched the way he did in Game 5 of a division series once, in Yankee Stadium, when he beat the Yankees for the Tigers.
I want to apologize to Melo, I know I haven’t been able to focus as much on his situation lately as I should.
It is interesting that the most memorable fight of Floyd Mayweather’s career wasn’t against Manny, it was against McGregor.
Do you sometimes worry, as I know I do, that the bromance between the 45th President and Gen. Kelly might not be forever?
Who goes to Houston after Harvey and talks about crowd size?
We already know the answer to that one, don’t we?
– We keep hearing and reading about all the things Colin Kaepernick can’t do on a football field.
We hear that this is all about inconsistency throwing from the pocket and all the rest of it, to the point where you start to think that the 49ers must have quarterbacked themselves to that Super Bowl in New Orleans one time.
But if you believe those are the reasons he can’t get a job anywhere, and not Kaepernick being the face of sideline protests in the NFL forever (no matter how many players have followed him), then you also believe this:
That pigs can fly.
And not the kind he famously had on his socks at the start of this.
In a league where you end up unemployed because of your beliefs.
Boy, does that make you want to jump up and salute the flag.