November 8, 2015

The Long Road Back

It's been more than five years since Venus Williams was ranked in the top ten -- but when the new WTA ranking come out on Monday the veteran American, thirty-five years young will have climbed back into the tennis elite, an accomplishment that may have seemed out of reach not that long ago.

The seven-time Grand Slam champion has struggled with injury and illness over the past several seasons, revealing in 2011 that she'd been diagnosed with Sjögren's Syndrome, which might have hampered her ability to endure long matches and fight against the younger, more energized hitters. She dropped for a time into triple digits and lost a couple first round matches at the Majors. But she started to launch her comeback in earnest in 2012 -- she stunned third seed Petra Kvitova in Miami and scored wins over players like Sam Stosur, Jelena Jankovic and soon-to-be-powerhouse Simona Halep a couple times that year. She capped off that season with a title in Luxembourg, bringing her ranking from #134 when she first got back on court to #24 by the time she stepped off it.

Williams has been up and down since then -- the following year she put together a streak of first round losses and dealt with another injury that forced her to skip Wimbledon for the first time since 1996 -- but she still couldn't be counted out. In 2014 she fell just short of picking up a title in Auckland and then upset five players in a row to claim the title in Dubai. But her biggest win, of course, came a few months later when she took out little sister Serena in Montreal, for her first win over the world #1 since 2009. And after starting this year by making up for that loss in New Zealnd, she went on to reach the quarters in both Melbourne and New York and then battled through an impressive draw to claim the trophy in Wuhan.

Her performance earned her the top seed at the inaugural WTA Elite Trophy this past week in Zhuhai -- while qualification was slightly different from that of previous Tournaments of Champions, the event nevertheless attracted an impressive field of rising stars, former Slam champions, and a couple one-time #1s. But Venus was not intimidated -- she powered through her round robin matches and in Saturday's semi absolutely trounced the woman who'd shocked Serena at the U.S. Open. She had a bit more of a challenge against Karolina Pliskova today -- the talented Czech hit back from a 1-4 deficit in the first set to even the score and after narrowly dropping the opener, ran off to a 4-2 lead to start the second. But Williams came back swinging too, and closed out the match in a tight, two-hour two sets.

Venus's return to the top ten seems like a fitting way to end the best season she's had in quite some time -- her three titles this year are the most she's won since 2008 and her forty-one match wins are her best since 2007. Her showing this season shows that not only is she more than able to hit with and even outlast her opponents, but more importantly that she's still hungry on the court. And while she certainly may be one of the elder statesmen out there, there are probably few more capable of translating that hunger into even more lasting success.

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