Venus Williams falters again

MELBOURNE, Australia -- To watch Venus Williams perform her job Monday at the Australian Open was to see one of the best players in the history of the game do what she has always done.

Facing 22nd-ranked Ekaterina Makarova in a tough first-round draw, Williams ripped groundstrokes for winners, served at 117 mph and prevailed in a 13-minute game to tie the second set at 4-all.

At that point, having taken the first set 6-2, Williams looked to be in control and on the brink of a nice nose-thumbing moment at all those who have wanted to push her into retirement.

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For the third time in her past seven Grand Slam events, Venus Williams lost in the first round.

Then, in a game she began with an ace, Williams double-faulted three straight times to hand back the break and soon the set at 6-4, sending her in for a second bathroom break and the match into a third and deciding set.

The final set, promising at first as Williams went up a break at 3-0, soon unraveled with Makarova reeling off five straight games and winning the match 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

This was the 33-year-old Williams' first first-round loss at the Australian Open, her third first-round loss in a Grand Slam in a year and a half and only adds fuel to the retirement argument.

And yet it remains as unfair a cry as it has ever been.

In a match that began at 11 a.m. Melbourne time Monday at 71 degrees and eventually climbed into the mid-80s on court at Margaret Court Arena, indeed Williams faltered in ways she rarely used to in her prime.

But ranked 37th, without a singles title since October 2012 and with a third-round showing here last year her best result in a major since a fourth-round berth at Wimbledon in 2011, Williams hardly embarrassed herself in the 2-hour, 29-minute match.

The question of retirement -- or perhaps demand for it as it seems to be from some quarters -- first reared its head in the fall of 2011, when Williams withdrew before her second-round match at the US Open, not long after being diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Sjogren's syndrome.

The illness is most notably marked by extreme fatigue, joint pain and other symptoms Williams had been suffering from without a diagnosis for years. And with it came a heightened awareness of what might otherwise be a somewhat normal decline at her age.

The '11 Open marked the first time in her career that she did not reach a quarterfinal or better in any of the year's Grand Slam tournaments, and her ranking that year dropped to 105th.

Williams ended the year outside of the world's top 50 for the first time in 14 years. She withdrew from the 2012 Australian Open, lost in the second round at the French and was unseeded at Wimbledon, where she was eliminated in the first round, the first time that happened there since 1997 as well.

But teamed with Serena, the sisters won their third gold medal in doubles that summer, and Venus reached the semis at the US Open, losing a three-setter to Li Na. A back injury complicated 2013, when she lost in the first round at the French, withdrew from Wimbledon, then upset 12th seed Kirsten Flipkens in the first round of the US Open before being eliminated in the second round by Zheng Jie.

So now here she is again, just wanting to compete, but for how much longer?

"The last 12 months I have had [health] issues," she said after her match, "but this year I definitely am looking forward to having a good run and feeling well."

Williams' game deteriorated against Makarova in the usual ways, with increased unforced errors (from 10 in the first set to 21 in the third) and a weakening second serve. Reaching the final at Auckland, New Zealand, a tune-up for the Australian where she lost in three sets to Ana Ivanovic, may have unreasonably raised expectations for Williams, but it does not mean she is through, either.

How close is she to playing the way she knows she can?

"That's difficult to say because I do play points really well, and then sometimes I don't put them together as well," she said. "I feel like I have to be patient with myself, because I really haven't had a chance to play that consistently. ... I just have to be patient and keep going and just wait for it to keep coming together more and more."

The instinct is and always has been that she should play as long as she damn well wants. She has earned the right to not even be questioned. And the way she deftly dodges such inquiries, it's obvious she feels the same way.

"[Health is] a factor for any professional athlete, so I don't think I'm any different from anyone else," she said.

Williams, who wore her own tie-dyed design, remains a big draw, is a great advocate for the women's game -- for which she fought and won equal prize money at all Grand Slam tournaments -- and she was certainly not hurting it by putting on a competitive show for the better part of the match.

The idea that she takes away from her legacy is as absurd an argument for quitting as it has ever been for an all-time champion in his or her respective sport. And if Williams decides to play doubles only at Grand Slam events -- she is playing with Serena here -- that's her prerogative as well.

The story of the Williams sisters' rise to greatness is not just another sports feature; it is one that will endure long after they are gone. And in a game that is still lacking in big box office, they are royalty.

Is it still worth it going out there, Williams was asked. A fair question, but they all seem insulting lately.

"Yeah, I mean, I train really hard," she said. "I was hitting the ball well this week, and, you know, obviously it was disappointing to not win the first round."

And what keeps her going?

"I love tennis. It's fun," she said. "I think pretty much anyone who plays tennis will say that they enjoy the game, so I think that is definitely motivation for me, something that I enjoy."

That should be enough for all of us.

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