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Venus Williams gets to decide when she leaves

Tennis: US OPEN

Sep 1, 2020; Flushing Meadows, New York, USA; Venus Williams of the United States hits the ball against Karolina Muchova of Russia on day two of the 2020 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The questions about Venus Williams’ future have been accumulating for a while now, some subtle, some less so.

About whether she’ll be back at a particular event. About whether she’ll stick around for the following season.

About her passion for tennis. About her motivation at age 40. About other players who recently retired or were about to retire.

The bottom line, essentially, was this: As Williams accrued more and more early exits at Grand Slam tournaments - and, well, other tournaments, too - how much longer would she keep playing professional tennis? But there is another bottom line and it is this: It’s really up to just one person to decide why and how long Williams will keep going.

Williams, of course.

And after going 0-3 at the sport’s major championships in 2020, and 1-8 overall during the pandemic-shortened season, Williams began the 2021 Grand Slam season with the best sort of answer to all of those questions. She won.

Starting her 21st Australian Open and professional-era record 88th appearance at all Slams, Williams beat Kirsten Flipkens 7-5, 6-2 on Monday. That set up a second-round meeting Wednesday with Sara Errani, a 33-year-old from Italy who was a French Open runner-up and U.S. Open semifinalist in 2012 and is now ranked 134th.

“I’m trying to get better every day. I think that, no matter what happens to you in life, you always hold your head up high. You give a hundred, million percent,” Williams said after compiling 10 break points and facing merely one against Flipkens. “That’s what I do every single day. That’s something that I can be proud of.”

Williams went out on court with wide strips of beige athletic tape on her left knee, protection that looked something like an asterisk.

Asked about it by a TV reporter afterward, Williams deflected the query with a joke about “decoration” and a smile. She looked just fine in the match, those long strides carrying her along the baseline, just as they have against so many opponents over so many years.

“I feel like whenever I see her, it’s really amazing just to watch, like, how much she loves tennis. I see her smiling so much nowadays, so it’s really nice to see. She just has this aura of loving the sport and this infectious energy,” three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said. “I hope that I can learn a lot from her.”

Truth be told, anyone could. About perspective. About perseverance. About grace.

Williams is someone who owns seven Grand Slam titles in singles - five at Wimbledon, two at the U.S. Open - and another 14 in doubles with her sister Serena.

She’s someone who reached nine other major singles finals that she lost (seven of those against Serena, part of the most remarkable sibling rivalry in sports history).

Someone who has won four Olympic gold medals.

Someone who has been ranked No. 1 (and currently is No. 81).

And so on and so forth.

Plus, someone who years ago needed to learn to live with an energy-sapping auto-immune disease.

“She’s such an inspiration, because she never gets frustrated about her situation, health-wise. She’s always looking on the bright side,” Serena said after her own lopsided first-round win at Melbourne Park on Monday.

“Then she works so hard. Yeah, she’s been great. We were hitting partners for the first two weeks, 2+ weeks, since we were here in Australia. It was so good to train with her. It was so good every day,” Serena added. “It’s also very inspiring because she still pushes me on a level that no one’s able to push me, so it was incredibly helpful.”

When the older Williams met with the media, the second question she received was about whether her age is “front of mind” for her while competing these days.

Williams volleyed right back, creating this exchange:

“Would it be front of mind for you, if you were playing a professional tennis match?”

“Not necessarily.”

“There you go.”

Another well-played riposte from Williams.