It’s hard to believe that just two short years ago, Venus Williams was ranked No. 2 in the world in women’s tennis, just behind her sister Serena. Venus was on fire in 2010 — she started the year by capturing back-to-back tournaments and finished with a run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open, falling in a tense three-set match to eventual champion Kim Clijsters.
The following year proved to be a reversal of fortunes. After missing five months with a hip injury, Venus mysteriously pulled out of a second-round match at the U.S. Open and announced she’d been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, a fatigue-inducing, autoimmune disease that has no cure. She left the game for another seven months, and her ranking plummeted to 134th.
Venus is back now — but for how long is anybody’s guess. As she prepares to make her 14th appearance at Wimbledon, where she’s racked up five of her seven Grand Slam singles titles, Williams isn’t making any promises about the future. She’s said on more than one occasion that her major motivation for returning to the court this year was to play in the London Olympics. Now that she’s raised her ranking enough to make the U.S. team, the 32-year-old has joked that she may just take the rest of the summer off after the Olympics.
Might she be preparing for a more permanent break instead? Could this actually be Venus’ final farewell at the All-England Club? Although it would be a huge loss for the game, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising. The Williams sisters have never shied away from the R word; indeed, they actually seem to relish the kinds of lives they’ll be able to lead once their tennis careers are over. And I can’t see Venus staying in the game much longer if she continues to fall in the second rounds of Grand Slams, as she did at the French — she’s too fierce a competitor for that.
But Venus has always played differently on the lawns at Wimbledon, which begs the question whether she may also have one last run in her. Since Serena was knocked out of the game herself in mid-2010 with various medical issues that included a scare with a pulmonary embolism, the women’s game has been in disarray, with no real dominant force on tour. Six different women have won the past six Grand Slams — a stat that shows just how wide-open the field is at the moment. (And anyone who picked Sara Errani to make the final of the French Open clearly won their Roland Garros office pool.) Although Serena is back now, she’s suffered some bewildering losses and may not be the clear favorite she once was. Venus, however, has knocked off a few big names in her comeback, including reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. If she is to leave the game soon, it would seem only fitting for Venus to hold her namesake trophy — the Venus Rosewater Dish — aloft one more time at the end of the fortnight.
Venus won’t be the only aging veteran in the women’s draw at Wimbledon. Clijsters will be hoping to rekindle some of the old magic too. Unlike Venus, the 29-year-old Clijsters has announced this will definitely be her final year on tour, and though the Belgian star has already returned from retirement once before (she quit in 2007 to give birth to her daughter Jada), she’s been adamant that this time it’s for real.
Clijsters may be even more of a long shot than Venus, if only because she’s never been able to replicate her success at the other Grand Slams on the grass at Wimbledon. She’s been to the semifinals only twice — losing in 2003 to Venus and in 2006 to her Belgian rival Justine Henin. She’s twice bowed out in the second round and twice in the fourth.
This isn’t to say that the tournament doesn’t hold a special place for her, however. Wimbledon was her father Lei’s favorite tournament. He was a former member of the Belgian football team, and he loved the fact that the tournament was played on grass. Every time she played at Wimbledon, she and her father would stay in a house together near the tennis center. Her father died of cancer in 2009, less than a year after she gave birth to her daughter.
“Wimbledon has always been the Grand Slam where I would have looked to do better,” Clijsters told the Independent in 2010. “I was there with my dad every year, and we had a very intense relationship over those two weeks. We were both so proud to be there, so excited. Emotionally it will be a little bit harder not to have him there.”
Coming off a long hiatus from injury, Clijsters may not come close to winning Wimbledon this year, but just being back there to play one more time is probably all that matters to her.
(MORE: 30 Legends of Women’s Tennis)