There really is no getting away from it: 2017 has, thus far, been rather special for tennis players of a certain age.
At the Australian Open, the titles were won by two 35-year-olds, both of them record-making Grand Slam champions: Roger Federer and Serena Williams. And both played 30-somethings in the finals.
At the first Masters/Premier Mandatory of the year in Indian Wells, it was again the over-30s who filled all four final spots. Federer beat the now-32 Stan Wawrinka, Elina Vesnina beat Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Now, at the second of March’s ‘sunshine double’ in Miami, a clutch of evergreen champions is again to the fore. Federer will take on 31-year-old Tomas Berdych for a place in the semi-finals. Rafael Nadal, 31 in June, is already there, and will face Fabio Fognini—who turns 30 in a few weeks’ time—for a place in the final.
But maybe the most remarkable presence through 2017 comes in the shape of the 6ft 1in Venus Williams. The three-time former Miami champion will be 37 in June.
She it was who contested that Australian title with sister Serena two months ago. She then twice came back from a set down to reach the quarter-final in Indian Wells, where she lost, again in three sets, to eventual champion Vesnina.
Now, the apparently ageless Williams is into the semi-finals in Miami, too, having beaten No7 seed Kuznetsova and world No1 Angelique Kerber, and she will re-enter the top 10 as a result. Should she win, she will rise to No7—almost two decades after she won in Miami for the first time in 1998.
And while the achievements of Federer, Serena Williams, Nadal, Wawrinka and Kuznetsova do, of course, deserve their plaudits, the return of the oldest of them, Venus, to the top table as she pursues her 50th title, is particularly special.
It does not take long to see what a war Venus has waged over injury and illness in the last half dozen years in particular: Just take a look at her timeline on Wikipedia.
Between 1997 and 2010, only twice did she fail to make the semis of at least one Grand Slam in each season: in 2004, she had an abdominal injury; in 2006, a wrist injury. Indeed, it was rare year that she did not make at least one Major final. Then, having reached two quarters and a semi in 2010, she hit a brick wall: the debilitating Sjögren’s Syndrome.
Many thought, at 30 years old, this could be career-ending for Williams after she dropped from the top 100.
But 2015 brought two Major quarter-finals, last year she reached her first semi at Wimbledon since 2009, and she enjoyed that top-10 feeling all over again.
But she has not stopped there. Along with running her fashion business and managing her health off court, she continues to exude a passion and determination to stay in the sport she loves. And this year, she made her first final in a Major in over seven years, her first in Melbourne since 2003, and another return among the ranking elite.
No wonder that, with her semi-final win, she twirled and danced like the teenager who reached the Australian quarter-finals back in 1998: “That moment was just joy.”
Not that it has been plain sailing, even as she worked back to fitness from the Sjögren’s. Back injury afflicted 2013, and there have been hip and elbow problems along the way. In Indian Wells, she played with heavy strapping to her thigh, though in Miami, she has looked lean, strong and injury free—to which her results testify.
But after her blistering performance against Kerber, Williams will have to recover fast to take on Briton Johanna Konta who, it so happens, has a winning record over her illustrious opponent.
It was in 2015, with Williams on the rise up the rankings to end her season at No7, that Konta first faced her childhood idol across the net.
It was the year, too, that the Briton finally found her feet among the elite on the tour. From a ranking of 147 as she entered the summer’s grass swing, she surged to 66 by the time she made the quarter-finals in Wuhan via a win over Simona Halep.
Konta confessed to BBCSport.com that it was “a bit of a childhood dream—I grew up watching [Venus] play. But as a competitor, I’m just really looking forward to the challenge. She’s a multi Grand Slam champion for a reason.”
Konta lost only narrowly, 7-5 in the third set, but they would meet again very soon, in the first round of last year’s Australian Open. This time, Konta beat the No10 seed, and headed all the way to the semis and a ranking of 23 by the time she hit Miami.
In their most recent meeting, even more was at stake: the Stanford title. Again, Konta battled through a three-setter and claimed her first title.
The cool and calm British woman, like Williams, started this year with a bang: semis in Shenzhen, title in Sydney, and a quarter-final run in Australia, where the younger Williams, Serena, called a halt.
But Konta has bounced back from injury to outdo last year’s result in Miami by again beating Halep.
A win for Konta would not only take her back inside the top 10 but also past Williams: a double whammy. However, she will have to find her very best.
Williams, the only remaining torch-bearer for the over-30s in the women’s draw, would surely love nothing more than to pick up that 50th title in front of her biggest fans, in home-town Miami. And that would, arguably, be as popular a result as any this year.
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