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Live Life Deliberately

Venus Williams, a champion in more ways than one, bows out at Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England — Appreciation for Venus Williams came in many forms over the weekend and into Monday, none more blatant than the shouts from a fawning crowd at Centre Court.

They started before a ball was struck in her first-round loss to Elina Svitolina and grew in volume and frequency after she took a nasty spill at the net 13 minutes in, screamed and clutched her already-taped right leg. Williams was briefly treated by a trainer, then got on with the match after a changeover.

“Take your time, Venus!” yelled one. Another chimed in: “Heart of a champion!”

Then there was, “You’ve still got it, Venus!” a few minutes later, in case the 43-year-old wearing the pearlescent white crop top and hip-hugging mini skirt didn’t already know.

Williams, a five-time singles champion here, enjoys the reverence of the masses, but it couldn’t help her overcome fellow wild card Svitolina. The 6-4, 6-3 loss was perhaps unsurprising to those not named Venus Williams, given that she only recently returned to tennis after a five-month absence because of a hamstring issue and has played a bare-bones schedule the past two years. The crowd applauded loudest at the end of her 24th appearance at Wimbledon, the most by a singles player in the Open era. She remains the Grand Slam record holder among active women with her seven titles.

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Yet it isn’t the memory of lifting a trophy that makes Williams most proud in the twilight of her career. That comes from her role as the driving force behind Wimbledon’s 2007 decision to begin awarding equal prize money to men and women.

“It was fantastic that the All England Club rose to that occasion upward of many, many years ago now, which I’m glad that so much time has passed since that moment,” Williams said before the tournament. “There are still a lot of struggles for women in the workplace and in life around the world, but for sports to take that lead is so important because everyone watches sports. That moment for me was incredible, and it’s still, like, the best moment of my career.”

Williams’s achievement is particularly topical this year for two reasons. June 21 was the 50th anniversary of the formation of the WTA, an effort spearheaded by Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Betty Stove, among dozens more. And last month, the WTA pledged to close the gender pay gap and raise the prize money of the tour’s biggest events to be in line with the men by 2033.

Women still compete for cents on the dollar relative to their male counterparts at many of the most significant events on the tennis schedule. This May in Rome, the winner of the ATP Masters 1000 event — a designation afforded to a tournament one level below a Grand Slam — earned $8.5 million. The winner of the equivalent WTA event won roughly $3.9 million.

When the renamed and revamped DC Open debuts later this month at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center as a combined 500-level event, the ATP tournament will boast a total financial commitment of $2,178,980 compared with $780,637 for the WTA event, sums that account for prize money and other costs of putting on a tournament.

Tennis has far to travel to equalize prize money across all levels. But thanks in large part to Williams, women need not consider the issue at any of the four Grand Slams.

The current generation of players feels so secure in the fact of pay equity at Grand Slams that, to many of them, Williams’s legacy is her enduring motivation, not her fight for equality. Asked how aware she was of Williams’s role in securing equal prize money at Wimbledon, 22-year-old top seed Iga Swiatek said she needed to brush up.

“I should be more aware, I got to tell you honestly,” Swiatek said. “I was, kind of, 6 years old [in 2007]. When I came on WTA Tour, I don’t know, I’m too young and it felt like it’s obvious that we have equal prize money, but I know it wasn’t like that. It still isn’t like that on some tournaments.”

To Williams, Swiatek’s ignorance is victory twice over.

“I don’t think any woman should have to worry about if they’re getting paid equal,” Williams said Monday. “I’m very happy that no woman again at a Grand Slam has to even concern herself with that. She can just play tennis.”

Bitter rivals. Beloved friends. Survivors.

Playing tennis is precisely what Williams would like to continue doing, by the way, if these injuries could please leave her alone. Swiatek and 19-year-old Coco Gauff said they admire Williams’s love of tennis all these years later; Williams confirmed as much after Monday’s loss. The former Grand Slam champion described herself as “in shock” multiple times after her in-match fall, given how well she had been playing at the start.

These were not the words of someone willing to give in to physical failings, no matter how long she has been in the game. Did she think about stopping the match because of her injury?

“No. I was trying to figure out how to win the match, try to fight to live another day,” Williams said.

Was this loss harder to deal with because she knows she has fewer matches ahead than behind?

“What makes this one hard to process is I’ve had so many injuries. I’ve been missing from tour for quite a while,” she said. “This is not what I want for myself.”

What Williams said she wanted in the moment was “to figure out what’s happening with me and move forward” — to more matches, more records, more standing ovations. Williams has already stretched her career so long that she has made a different positive impact on different generations, which may be the ultimate privilege for any athlete — to be remembered as a defining character without being defined by a single thing. So she plans to carry on, as she always has.

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