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How Venus Williams became the Henri Matisse of tennis

Even at the tail end of her playing career, Williams finds new ways to shine

NEW YORK — Looking at people who find ways to continue doing what they love even after their bodies begin to betray them, Henri Matisse is probably my favorite. And he’s actually got quite a lot in common with Venus Williams.

Matisse, in his prime, was a brilliant sculptor, painter and printmaker, adept at capturing the whimsy, romance and sensuality of human movement. Several trips to Harlem in the 1930s changed how he painted black people, and thus how later artists would too. Along with Pablo Picasso, he’s widely credited with ushering in the era of modernism. Even if you’re not an art buff, you’ve probably seen a version of Dance (1909), which is among his most famous works.

Venus Williams returns a shot during her second-round match against Elina Svitolina at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Aug. 28. Williams saved five match points but eventually lost 6-4, 6-4.

Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Matisse liked to switch things up. Early on, he led a movement known as Fauvism that prioritized bright colors and brash, expressive brushstrokes. It’s not delicate, it’s not polite, and it drove the more conservative art enthusiasts of the day mad. His late work was dominated by large-scale cutouts after a cancer surgery in 1941 led him to rely on a wheelchair. It’s not the crazed brushstrokes of his youth, but it’s still awfully beautiful — an adaptation based on what his body would allow him to create. Matisse died in 1954 at age 84.

Which brings us to Williams, who exited her 21st US Open on Wednesday with a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Elina Svitolina in the second round.

Williams, now 39 and ranked 52nd in the WTA standings, has spent a significant portion of her career, nearly eight years, managing Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that saps the body of moisture and causes joint pain and fatigue. Watching Williams play these days makes the fan a worrywart. Each grimace invites questions: How much pain is she playing through? How much gas does she have left in the tank? What makes the grueling nature of professional tennis worth it at this point, after Williams has accumulated more than $41.5 million in prize money and 49 singles titles, seven of them Grand Slams?

Williams was in no mood to address such questions after her loss to Svitolina. Her best finishes this year have been quarterfinal exits from tournaments in Auckland, New Zealand; Indian Wells, California; Birmingham, England; and Cincinnati, and she’s been working through knee and arm injuries besides managing her Sjogren’s.

“I have spoken about this quite extensively in the past,” she said, then moved on to the next query.

“I think you see some players, they’re clearly not playing well and they can’t keep up and they just can’t compete,” Williams told Time last summer, when asked why she still puts up with the rigors of the WTA tour. “This is not a problem that I have.”

The French painter and sculptor Henri Matisse made carvings in his studio at Regina, Nice, in 1952. At the end of his life, Matisse cut out gouache papers, which he assembled into marvelous shapes, both obvious and complex. He died in 1954 at age 84.

AFP / Getty Images

Grand Slam tennis is now filled with women who grew up watching Williams and her younger sister, Serena, perfect what one might call Tennis Fauvism. They have adopted the Williams sisters’ unrelenting, bruising athleticism: bigger serves, stronger returns and faster play. They had to, frankly. There could be no return to a gentler status quo, in part because neither Venus nor Serena has left the game yet, but also because the road to a trophy tends to go through either Serena or one of her stylistic clones.

And yet, at 39, Venus has found a different way to wield the weapons she honed when she was younger, in much the way Matisse turned to paper cutouts when painting was no longer an option. She lost the match to Svitolina, but she went down fighting. Trailing 5-3 in the second set, Williams forced Svitolina into some lengthy rallies, saving five match points. One game took nearly 15 minutes to finish. Where speed and agility are in shorter supply, smarts have taken over. She is judicious about conserving energy, even as she laps up coffee during her matches.

Williams was dripping with sweat, but there was a serenity, grace and patience in her play. She was hitting shots with an impressive amount of force (her fastest serve Wednesday was 118 mph), but she wasn’t as consistently precise as she needed to be, and enough shots were too wide or too long that she couldn’t quite fight her way back to a win. It’s still possible to see hints of her younger self. A forehand return in the second set briefly looked like one she’d hit in the 2005 Wimbledon final during a key rally against Lindsay Davenport.

But this time, what could have been a momentum-shifting shot was out instead of in. The crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium exhaled in near-uniform disappointment.

Nevertheless, watching this mature iteration of Williams still holds value. There is a willowy, balletic quality to the way she moves her 6-foot-1 frame across the court like dancer Carmen de Lavallade with a racket. It’s easy to imagine that Matisse, were he still alive, would be inspired by the lines she creates with it.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.