No one remained in their seat as Venus Williams, 43, walked off Wimbledon’s Centre Court on Monday following her 6-4, 6-3 loss to Elina Svitolina. All of the nearly 15,000 in attendance were on their feet showering her with applause, and “We love you, Venus” screams could be heard throughout the stadium.
Williams, a five-time champion at the tournament, gave no outward display of emotion to the reaction from the crowd. She waved with her left hand as she walked as fast as she could, despite a noticeable limp.
Williams was playing as a wild card, in a record-setting 24th main draw appearance at Wimbledon, breaking a tie with Martina Navratilova for the most in the Open era. While there has been speculation that this would be her final time playing at the All England Club, Williams has given no concrete indication of her future plans. But it was clear this wasn’t a ceremonial match. She wanted to win — and believed she could do just that.
“I’ve played through a lot of injuries and won a lot of matches injured,” Williams said after the match. “It’s almost a specialty of mine. I just couldn’t figure it out today.”
After playing sparingly the past few seasons, and after a hamstring injury suffered in Auckland in January, Williams made her return to competition last month. She lost in her first match at the Libema Open but was resurgent the next week at Birmingham, defeating Camila Giorgi in a marathon match that lasted well over three hours, and battling eventual champion Jelena Ostapenko for three hard-fought sets.
At the start of Monday’s first-round match against Svitolina, it appeared as if Williams’ momentum might continue when she won the first two games with ease. But then Williams took a fall at the net in the fourth game, screaming as she fell to the ground. As she clutched her already wrapped right knee, it appeared her tournament might be prematurely over. But after a brief medical timeout, she returned to the court. She continued to fight, her movement clearly hindered, but it wasn’t enough against Svitolina. The match concluded on an overruled challenge. Neither player seemed happy to have it end in such a way.
While the loss was understandably disappointing for Williams, the actual match outcome was irrelevant to many of her peers. Her sheer presence was what seemed to matter most. “I think for her to still be out there just shows her passion and how much she loves to compete and play,” Jessica Pegula, the top-ranked American, said over the weekend. “I think it’s amazing.”
Williams made her debut at Wimbledon in 1997 — when Svitolina was just 2, and before many of those in the draw were even born. Williams has been a stalwart of women’s tennis for nearly 30 years. Her 49 career singles titles, including seven at majors, her four Olympic gold medals and 98 wins on grass are legendary. But they’re just part of her story and what she’s meant to the sport. She has paved the way for Black players, advocated — and forced — equal prize money at tournaments like Wimbledon and overcome a challenging autoimmune disease.
“The way that Venus comes and fights and still goes after what she wants, it’s really admirable,” Victoria Azarenka said on Monday. “Because it’s so easy to get caught in results and expectations and everything. Then, you know, those moments of like little inspiration I definitely take them for myself.”
Throughout Monday’s match, fans could be heard trying to will Williams back into the match. Cheers like, “One point at a time, Venus!” and “You got this, V!” could be heard. Always known for her tenacity, Williams said she never considered retiring from the match due to the injury.
“I was trying to figure out how to win the match, try to fight to live another day,” she said matter-of-factly.
Coco Gauff, who grew up idolizing Williams and her sister Serena, and who defeated Williams in Gauff’s Wimbledon debut in 2019, said her competitive fire is inspiring.
“I don’t think that love [for tennis] has swayed over the course of her career,” Gauff said on Saturday. “I think you can see players who are older now and you can have a feeling they probably don’t love it as much as they did when they started it. I don’t have that feeling with Venus. I hope I’m the same way.”
Appreciation for a great champion.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 3, 2023
Currently ranked No. 558, Williams has not publicly said anything regarding a potential retirement and is adamant she would never tell the media about any such plans. With multiple successful businesses and interests outside of tennis, and her candid comments about missing her sister on tour since Serena retired last year, it would hardly be surprising if Venus decided to walk away. But when asked in her news conference if she would be playing the US Open later this summer, she said she wasn’t sure.
“I got to figure out my next plan,” Williams said. “Right now I’m kind of in shock. I just can’t believe this happened. It’s bizarre. I don’t know. I’m still processing it at the moment.”
And then again, she didn’t fully dismiss a question about playing into her 50s when speaking to the press on Saturday either.
“It’s never been done before, so if there was one to try it, it would be me.”
Venus Williams is out of Wimbledon, but her status remains legendary