The fate of Venus Williams‘ US Open journey was unknown, yet tennis loyalists remained optimistic. Â Unranked, Venus, 31, took the court at The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens humbled, yet hopeful, that she’d be able to make a respectable run in the tournament after such a challenging journey.
Williams had been absent from tennis for two months due to a viral illness.Â But, after Monday’s match, she had an impressive outing against Vesna Dolonts whom she defeated in straight sets, 6-4,6-3.Â Maybe Venus was rebounding.
As spectators filled the stadium ready to watch Venus compete, they instead were met with a shocking announcement that Williams withdrew from the competition due to an unspecified illness.
The vague explanation forced the media to do what they do best when it comes to Venus and her sister, Serena, make assumptions and become accusatory and critical of what they perceive as a lack of commitment to the sport by the Williams Sisters.
Meanwhile, I cringed as I remained hopeful that a PR nightmare would not ensue; while also hoping that her decision was due to a nagging injury that resurfaced at the worst time possible; not some scary sounding disease that I still can’t pronounce.Â Unlike Serena, Venus has led a more private life, so it wasn’t expected that Venus would suddenly reveal her secret to the masses.
But, to my surprise and relief, Venus and her team immediately released an official statement which reverberated throughout the sports community.Â Venus is battling Sjorgren’s Syndrome, an incurable, yet treatable autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and joint pain, but is not expected to pose a threat to Venus’ career or life.Â Instead of the usual criticism and shade that Venus is accustomed to, she was met with heartfelt compassion; a more befitting reaction for a champion who’s racked up 21 Grand Slam titles in her career.
I admire Venus for all that she’s contributed to the sport.Â The hope, excitement, opportunity, and optimism that she’s shared is one of the primary reasons I’d clear my Saturday morning schedule whenever she was competing. And although I do not intend to eulogize her or her career, the truth is she hasn’t been at the top of her game since she won her last singles Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2008.Â So, even if Sjorgren’s Syndrome proves to be no match for Venus, eventually her age and persistent injuries will get the best of her.
As a fan, I’m hopeful she has a couple of more years left in her, but more importantly, the concern that I have about tennis returning to a whiteout once Venus and Serena formally retire is real, too.
Before Venus and Serena, Althea Gibson broke down color barriers in the 1950s.Â Then, 40 years later, the Williams Sisters emerged on the scene and dominated the sport.Â And now as we anticipate the end of the Williams Sisters’ careers a large question mark looms and leaves us wondering who’s got next.
While it appears that the USTA has made great strides in recognizing the importance of promoting diversity, the Williams Sisters made it easy for them to do so.Â When you dominate a sport as Venus and Serena did at the height of their careers, it’s a no-brainer.Â But, as I look around to see where the next generation of Venus and Serenas are, I become discouraged.Â While Madison Keys and Donald Young have been identified as someone with potential, the USTA hasn’t done much to promote her or generate awareness; which sends the wrong message.
Just as the USTA recognized gender equality was an issue for the sport and eventually won that battle by awarding men and women equal prize money, they need to also become true champions for diversity.Â Funding tennis academies in underprivileged areas is a start, but truly identifying and developing minority talent must be a priority if the USTA wants to retain the fan base they acquired during the Williams era.
Time is ticking on both of their careers.Â And for everything they’ve contributed to the sport, it would be a shame if it took another 40 or 25 or even 10 years before the next generation of minority talent emerged and attained success.
I’m hopeful we have more time before both Venus and Serena give their final wave to the crowd, but it’s essential that the USTA are transparent about their plans to restore hope that the game won’t fade to white once the Williamses say farewell.