Venus Williams and I were born within five weeks of each other, but I wish I had more in common with her than that. The differences were immediately apparent. At 14, I nurtured solemn and totally unrealistic dreams of tennis stardom, shuffling my flat feet around the courts of the Ontario Junior Tennis circuit. At 14, Venus played her first professional tournament in California, winning one round before stretching the top-ranked player, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, in the next.
Venus and I have both recently turned 40. We reached quarante, as the French would say, in quarantine. Such milestones tend to encourage backward glances, but Venus’s professional gaze is set firmly forward. She is playing in the World Team Tennis tournament this month. Early into lockdown, she announced on Instagram, “When the season starts, I will be ready.”
My 40th birthday has prompted some suspicious staring competitions with the term “middle age” – who will blink first? With time on my mind, I’ve been thinking about how the careers of our famous contemporaries offer us other ways of experiencing the flow of our days.
It’s not a natural fit to idolise someone five weeks your junior. So what was Venus to me, if not an idol? Maybe it’s better to coin a phrase and say I was her “sidle”, scurrying along in parallel, keeping up chronologically at least. She was a sideways dream-self, having been given the same ration of days as me, and in them achieved my most outlandish teenage ambition. The sidle’s tale is one of warped clockwork; the relationship to the star alters their sense of time.
Venus’s arrival on the WTA Tour was certainly a temporal disruption in itself, heralding the new tennis style that would dominate the following decades. Before her, Martina Navratilova set new standards for speed and fitness, but she didn’t have Venus’s explosive power. While Steffi Graf’s forehand was feared, her backhand slice was a relative haven for her opponent’s shots. Monica Seles was the first player to have two equally devastating groundstrokes, but she lacked Graf’s athleticism. Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce followed Seles with even more twin-engined power, but, again, neither were exceptional movers. It was immediately obvious that Venus combined power and speed in an unprecedented union, which would soon become a revolution led by both Williams sisters.
Venus and I collided in space and time at the qualifying weekend of the 1997 Du Maurier Open in Toronto. I’d gone with my elder brother, and at the end of the day we had bought ice creams and strolled through the grounds. Suddenly there was Venus, on a lonesome side court. I remember feeling I was a tennis insider when I recognised her hitting partner as her younger sister Serena, yet to join the tour full-time. Their mother Oracene was in charge.
“You wanna play some?” Venus called across the net to Serena. “Use the whole court, please,” said Oracene. To watch them was a dizzying combination of the world-beating and the home-made. In less than three years they would both be Grand Slam champions. Never before could two family members replicate the quality of a US Open final on their backyard court.
Venus came to the corner where we were standing, to pick up some balls. I was unable to speak. Only when we were walking away did I realise that I had ice cream streaming down my forearm and, as my brother informed me, “all over” my mouth.
A long career such as Venus’s rewards fans with eerie moments when time seems to loop back on itself. A month after our “encounter”, Venus was in the semi-final of the US Open. Down match point, she hit a running backhand passing shot to save the match and ultimately reach her first major final. Twenty years later, Venus was in the US Open semi-finals again. Two points from winning, she approached the net. This time, it was her much younger opponent Sloane Stephens who hit the astonishing down-the-line backhand, fending off the threat of match points and ultimately grabbing victory. At such times, it’s easy to feel a portentous sense of déjà vu, like an old, nodding mystic. You hear a familiar knock at the door, and then the future lets itself in.
At a certain point, most sportspeople get turned into strange timekeepers. They’re expected to have a crystal ball in one hand and a memoir in the other. Reporters are constantly trying to make Venus tell the time: asking “Will you be back next year?”, or inviting her to “reflect” on her career. In one interview, Venus patiently explained how she doesn’t think that way. She exists in the perpetual present of competition: you play one opponent, she said, and then the next one is waiting behind her, then another, and another. Maybe “when all’s said and done”, she said, then she’ll reflect.
Age, of course, does creep in. Time does tell. These days Venus is likely to appear on court in various wraps and bandages, her serving arm sheathed in a black or navy-blue sleeve. While peerlessly fit and powerful, the veteran tennis player can have subtler frailties: a hesitancy on the put-away shot, a slight infirmity of the spirit on the biggest points. No one’s aging is as unsettling as that of your contemporaries. With remote Venus, this feeling becomes a childish frustration that she isn’t striding across the court like it’s 1999.
Lately I’ve begun to think of Venus’s career superstitiously, as if it’s a talisman against time. I’m dimly afraid that when Venus eventually retires, when I stop seeing her name in the corner graphics of Wimbledon matches, something that has been held back will be released. In some dank cellar or other, a cork will explode out of a barrel, and my middle age will come pouring forth.
One consolation is that Venus, like her tennis-court home, runs according to her own time. Tennis is one of the minority of sports that isn’t determined by the clock. A match ages according to how the points combine and accrue. Venus reflects this unpredictability in the timescale she has invented for her own career. She has defiantly stretched the 11th hour assigned to her by a watch-tapping press. With Venus Williams, it’s always earlier than you think.
This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine