Experience pays off for Venus Williams
WIMBLEDON, England -- We are an aging society.
According to the most recent numbers, the average life expectancy for women in the United States is 81.3 years and 76.7 for men. This is why nursing home stock continues to rise and why there are fears that Social Security might not sufficiently support the baby boomers as they come of retirement age.
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Although women's tennis remains a sport of speed and power, some of its leading lights are graying right in step with the rest of the world. Consider the past four women to win Grand Slam singles titles: Francesca Schiavone (29 years old at the time), Serena Williams (28), Kim Clijsters (27) and, most recently in Paris, Li Na (29).
The elder statesman -- stateswoman? -- is Venus Williams. She's not quite ready for AARP membership, but she did turn 31 three days ago. In tennis, this constitutes senior status.
Because her sister Serena is the two-time defending champion here at the All England Club and hasn't played in nearly a year after a variety of arresting physical issues, Venus has come into the fortnight with relatively little fanfare. This is a bit curious because she is a five-time champion and the best grass-court player of her generation.
She, too, has missed time with injuries; hip and abdominal problems forced her to sit out for four-and-a-half months before she returned to play last week at Eastbourne. On Monday, in the shadow of the featured show courts, she won her first-round match on cozy Court 2, defeating Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan 6-3, 6-1.
"I think I'm smarter, if anything, than five years ago," Venus told reporters afterward. "That's the beauty, I think, of being able to have a long career, is being able to use the experience that you learn on the court. I think more and more players are starting to realize that it's an advantage to be able to play longer because you actually understand the game."
It doesn't seem possible, but Venus will be the younger player in her second-round match -- by nine years. Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm is 40 and the oldest woman in the draw. Moreover, she is the third-oldest woman to compete at Wimbledon in the Open era.
Venus' most recent title here came three years ago, so at her advanced age, can she win here once more?
"Yes," ESPN analysts Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver said simultaneously when the question was posed.
Even though Amanmuradova has never won a match on grass, based on the very early returns, they might be right.
Like Roger Federer -- who is going for his record-tying seventh Wimbledon crown -- Venus feels most comfortable on this lush, living carpet. It suits her aggressive game; five of her seven career majors have come here.
Against 97th-ranked Amanmuradova, Venus was covering the entire court with her long, loping strides and enormous wingspan. Although Amanmuradova, at 6-foot-3, is two inches taller than Venus, she didn't play nearly as big.
With Venus serving for the match at 5-3, Amanmuradova managed to forge a 15-30 lead. Three unreturnable serves -- one of them a 117 mph ace -- gave Venus the match. It was over in less than an hour, and she committed only five unforced errors (zero in the second set), a startlingly low total for someone who is playing in only her fourth tournament since last year's Wimbledon.
Venus said she returned too quickly in Australia; she retired from her third-round match when her right hip injury flared. It was the only time she has retired from a Grand Slam event. This time, Venus said, she wasn't coming back until she was completely healthy.
"I avoided calling my mom because she said, 'You're not trying to come back too soon, are you?' Bullying me about it," Venus said. "I couldn't come back too soon, or I'd be in the same situation as I was in Australia. That was very painful, not something to go through twice."
One of the ways Venus has passed the time recently is designing clothes for her EleVen line. Her latest creation: Monday's blousy, white-lace toga affair with a gold zipper and an open back.
"Jumpers are very now, as is lace," she explained. "It's just kind of like a trendy dress. It's fun."
Forty years ago, Clairol advertised its Loving Care hair coloring product with the beguiling phrase, "You're not getting older; you're getting better."
To a point, women's tennis has embraced this concept.
Gone are the days when 16-year-olds such as Martina Hingis blew into the sport and dominated. The women's game, with advances in equipment, fitness and nutrition, has matured. It's been three years since 20-year-old Ana Ivanovic broke through to win the French Open. Caroline Wozniacki, who won't turn 21 until next month, is the No. 1-ranked player in the world, but not many imagine she will win here. The youngest among the serious contenders? That would be 24-year-old Maria Sharapova, who was a precocious 17 when she lifted the Wimbledon title for her first Grand Slam singles victory.
Venus is still death against inferior first-round opponents. She's 50-3 in the first round of majors. But can she run off a string of six more victories?
History suggests it will be difficult. The last woman 30 or older to win a Grand Slam singles title was Martina Navratilova here at Wimbledon 21 years ago.
Venus has been practicing properly for about one month now, which would be a problem for most players. But because she has played light schedules throughout the years -- by preference and because of injuries -- Venus has learned how to hit the ground running.
"I know I need to kind of come out firing," she said. "Been pretty good at that in the past -- and today."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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