She walked onto the court late on a gray and chilly afternoon with that rocking gait that has become so familiar to tennis fans over the past 25 years. With her tennis bag on her shoulder, she pulled at the ends of an elastic band to get in some last-minute upper-body stretches.
Venus Williams, a five-time Wimbledon singles champion and a nine-time finalist, was back on Centre Court on Monday at age 43, vying to become one of the oldest women to win a main draw singles match at the sport’s oldest Grand Slam event.
That is not how the day went. It ultimately left her limping, an injured symbol of a couple of undeniable truths about this era of tennis.
The first: Players are stretching their careers longer than they ever have, into their late 30s and, in the case of the Williams sisters, into their early 40s, thanks to better training, nutrition and compensation. Caroline Wozniacki, 32, a former world No. 1, announced last month that she was returning to tennis after retiring in 2020 and having two children.
The second: It’s difficult to stay healthy and win in this brutal sport in your late 30s and early 40s, unless your name is Novak Djokovic.
There were members of the older set scattered all across the All England Club on Monday, the first day of Wimbledon, and not simply in the television booths. Williams took Centre Court after Djokovic, 36, had begun yet another title defense in his usual fashion, beating Pedro Cachín of Argentina in straight sets. The American player John Isner, 38, lost in four sets on Court 16 to Jaume Munar of Spain, but two courts over, on Court 18, Stan Wawrinka, another 38-year-old, was giving a clinic to Emil Ruusuvuori, eliminating the 24-year-old Finn in straight sets.
Williams came up short in her effort, a hard-luck, 6-4, 6-3 loss to Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in which Williams aggravated an injured right knee early in the match. Williams never regained the form she had shown in the match’s first few minutes, when she grabbed an early lead and gave every sign that a win for the old guard might be in the cards. Last month, Williams, ranked 558th in the world, beat a player ranked in the top 50 for the first time in four years, outlasting Camila Giorgi of Italy in a third-set tiebreaker in Birmingham, England.
The victory helped Williams earn a wild-card entry into the Wimbledon tournament, which she won in five of nine appearances from 2000 to 2008. She made the women’s singles final as recently as 2017, and she has not given any indication that she is pointing at a certain end.
“I’m a competitor,” a somber and shaken Williams said in her postmatch news conference. “That’s what I do for a living.”
She has been doing it since she was 14.
Playing on grass that was slick from a midafternoon rain shower and the moisture that lingered in the air throughout the day, Williams came out firing serves and lacing hard, flat shots to the back of the court. She broke Svitolina’s serve in the second game. But facing break point in the third game, Williams charged the net and then crumpled onto the grass with a scream as she clutched her right knee, which was wrapped in a support band.
Williams remained on the ground for several minutes, with Svitolina placing a towel under her head for support. It looked as though Williams’s afternoon would end right there. But she got up and limped to her chair, where a trainer examined her. Afterward, her movement was far more limited than it had been in the first two games.
She hobbled through points and struggled to generate the power from her groundstrokes and her serve that has long been the signature of her game but requires the ability to push and torque with the lower half of her body. The speed of her first serve dropped from 115 miles per hour early in the match to the mid-90s.
“I was literally killing it — then I got killed by the grass,” Williams said. “It’s not fun right now.”
The sequence of events had an eerie familiarity. Two years ago, her sister Serena walked onto the same court for her first-round match, seeking her eighth Wimbledon title at age 39. The effort lasted just six games: Serena Williams had to withdraw in the first round because of an ankle injury.
Serena Williams returned to Wimbledon last year at the start of what seems to have been a final summer of professional tennis, though one never knows these days. She lost in the first round in three sets on an evening that had the feel of a farewell.
What was striking about her older sister’s match Monday was how little it felt like a valedictory, and how defiant Venus Williams seemed as she faced the toll that aging exacts on every athlete, regardless of her ability.
She said she was in shock at being injured, though older athletes are far more injury-prone.
“I just can’t believe this happened,” she said. “It’s, like, bizarre.”
She was angry at how the match had ended. On match point, Svitolina hit a ball that was called out, but the chair umpire gave her the match when the Hawk-Eye system showed it was in. Williams’s return of the shot had been wide, and the umpire ruled that the point would not be replayed. Williams skipped the postmatch handshake with the umpire.
She said the injury had been so painful that it had prevented her from focusing. She said that she had never considered stopping and that she would have her knee checked on Tuesday. Moments later, she was talking about the difficulty of processing another injury after recovering from a hamstring injury at the start of the year.
She has been missing from the tour for a while. It is not what she wants for herself in her early 40s.
“Hopefully I can just figure out what’s happening with me and move forward,” she said.
For nearly 30 years, that has meant one thing: back to the tennis court.