Watching Venus Williams and cheering for ourselves
A Wimbledon finalist at 37 shows us how to stay in the game
With every ace and every unforced error, Venus Williams, 37, was battling more than just her 26-year-old opponent, Johanna Konta, at the Wimbledon semifinals.
The five-time singles champion is fighting Mother Time and all her creaky henchmen: Lost a Step, Feeling Broke Down, Used to be Cute and Getting Too Old.
With the first set on the line, Konta fought off the first of three break points, but Williams had been here many, many times before. In tennis and life, that matters. Advantage Williams. She won the first set 6-4, and fans around the world cheered.
Many of us are not just rooting for Williams. We are rooting for ourselves, heading into the back 40 of our lives.
Williams is the oldest women’s player to reach the semifinals since Martina Navratilova in 1994 and is playing her best tennis in years. At the Australian Open in January, she advanced to her first Grand Slam final since Wimbledon 2009, losing only to her sister, the incomparable Serena. It has been 20 years since her first Grand Slam final at the 1997 U.S. Open. To get to Centre Court at Wimbledon on Saturday, she beat five teenagers and 20-somethings, not to mention injury and illness, including a 2011 diagnosis of the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome.
Williams’ success as her career as a world-class athlete inevitably starts to wind down marks a goal for the rest of us to aspire to: the ability, as we get older, as life comes at us fast, to stay in the game.
As Satchel Paige, who made his major league baseball debut at 42, once famously said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” Or perhaps you’re hearing Aerosmith’s classic rock dinosaur, “Dream On”: Every time I look in the mirror / All these lines in my face getting clearer.
Go ahead and dream on. But work on your hips and knees, and keep that backfield in motion so that you can still show off that fierce Wobble at the office Christmas party.
“I think mindset is as big a factor in Venus’ success as any of it,” said Dan Ritchie, president of the Functional Aging Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana, which trains fitness professionals on how to work with mature clients. Williams has always had an outsize will to win, and “it’s one of the reasons why she hasn’t gone away just because you should go away when you’re 35. Who says you should go away when you’re 35? And who made that rule up?”
There’s wide variability in peak human physicality. Tennis players may peak physiologically in their late 20s. But because it is a noncontact sport, tennis is better suited to longevity than are sports such as football and basketball.
Williams may “not move as well as she did when she was 19, but I guarantee she moves smarter,” said Ritchie. “She knows where to put the ball, she knows how to play a point. She’s played thousands and thousands of tennis points, which is a huge advantage over a 19-year-old who has played a fraction of the tennis.” There are technological and therapeutic breakthroughs in sports training. And greater knowledge of when to rest. Williams “has all those intangibles.”
Even those of us who aren’t playing on Centre Court would benefit from resisting ageism. “We have bought into the concept that to grow old is to be sick, to grow old sucks, to grow old is a bad thing, that age is negative,” said Ritchie. “That number does not have to define you. You have to say, ‘How can I be the best version of me no matter what my age?’”
Ritchie said that includes spending at least three days a week in some form of physical exercise. It doesn’t have to be in a gym. It can be hiking or swimming or dancing. Just keep it moving.
Doing air volleys while cheering on Venus Williams counts. It’s when you stop moving (perhaps because something starts to twinge) that muscle atrophies.
During Thursday’s semifinal match, analyst and former tennis superstar Chrissie Evert marveled at how Venus was “in the zone right now. She’s playing perfect tennis.” On Saturday, she’ll face 23-year-old Garbine Muguruza of Spain. If she wins, Williams would become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era.
As Williams says, “Winning never gets old.”