As a tennis fan in America, you get used to peculiar rhythms. Wimbledon means Sunday starts as early as it would for church. The French means something similar, although its timing in May means people’s attentions are divided, antsy from spring. Obviously, the U.S. Open is easiest on your sleep schedule. In those final days before school starts and summer ends, I like to get really lazy. I like to indulge in tennis for hours, as the Open rallies through Labor Day weekend. But the Australian Open is something else entirely.
When the Australian Open is going on, not only is it gloomy January, when most of us pray for sun, but the action happens while the American tennis fan is literally in darkness. Matches happen live in the time of insomniacs and weirdos. You wake up to find a whole different life has happened while you were asleep. For the last two weeks, I have spent a large portion of my morning in bed, lit by the glow of my phone, breezing through highlights and news of shots that people shouldn’t have made, the upsets that shouldn’t have happened. With Djokovic and Murray out before they’re accustomed, Nadal and Federer playing like old times, and women’s tennis being as unpredictable and lovable as usual (so long, Muguruza; bye, Kerber), this year has been truly – what’s the word? Wild. We’ve seen some wild stuff. And the wildest in Australia this year has been Venus Williams.
I woke up yesterday to cries of Venus. Good grief, Venus Williams. She’s 36 years old, a former no. 1 player with 49 career titles and she plays tennis like she still has something to prove. Watching her, more often than not, you feel like the sport matters in a quietly profound way, like you can learn something about life just by watching her do it. There’s something beautiful in her maturity that’s all hers. And there has been no better recent evidence of it than her reaction to her semi-final win against Coco Vandeweghe. Just watch the joy on display here:
This woman just won a Major semi. But also a Top Model pose down, a drag ball vogue fight, and maybe even a Showcase Showdown. pic.twitter.com/p4UYYUetza
— Wesley Morris (@Wesley_Morris) January 26, 2017
That reaction is something between knee-buckling ecstasy and choreographed celebration, totally honest and long awaited. It’s completely justified: this will be Venus’ first Slam final in eight years, since she was in her late 20s. You can measure how eight years feels on a person’s shoulders in the way she twirled, the way she smiled into the sky. It’s refreshing to watch, a relief that feels pure. As her sister Serena, who will play Venus in the final on Saturday, put it, this is a defining moment of the Williams sisters’ careers. Serena is going for her 23rd Slam title, and Venus is going for the closest a still vital player like her gets to a comeback. There will be tears. So many tears. Their mom probably will not be in the stands, as is her custom.
Either because of politics or seasonal changes (or both), I’ve found myself retreating into the sports I love lately. They’re comfort food that reminds me of better things, like home or something like it, or myself when I’m happier and more optimistic. The Australian Open usually has this effect on me, but this year it’s been even more of a boon. The simplicity and complexity of a tennis match has been more than escapism – it has been reassuring to watch athletes I’ve grown to love, hate and more importantly understand over several years (and in the case of the Williams sister, over half my life). I’ve taken comfort in watching them do the things those athletes do. Their humanity has been in some ways restorative, and in other ways a lovely distraction.
When Venus was asked post-match to talk about being an inspiration to people, she answered with her typical grace and thoughtfulness. She said that people love sports so much because “you see everything in a line.” (No one does thoughtful like Venus.) You see someone begin a quest and end it in real time, and athletes, when they’re good, don’t fake it. Knowing Venus’ style on and off the court, she means to speak for herself there, first and foremost. She never fakes it, and that’s why she’s so great to watch. It’s relatable: she’s vulnerable to disaster, even though she’s familiar with triumph. Here’s to getting up too early tomorrow, to watch her win or lose it all.