By Romi Cvitkovic
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In front of an impressive crowd that included First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams debuted in a Washington Kastles 20-11 win over the Boston Lobsters in World TeamTennis on Monday night. (Full gallery of Williams and First Family below.)
The Kastles have now won 22 consecutive matches and are 6-0 on the season, continuing one of the greatest winning streaks in all of sports.
Before stepping on court to battle, the Kastles’ team and owner Mark Ein met with the First lady for candid conversation and a team photo. The Obamas were in attendance when sister Serena Williams won here last year, so it was due time for Venus to play in front of the First Family as well. (I heard that President Obama was at the USA vs. Brazil basketball game at the Verizon Center, so it was no surprise that the Obama ladies jetted there via helicopter after the Kastles’ sealed the win as well!)
An excited and radiant Williams laughed her way through a press conference with reporters and talked about her health, comeback and the upcoming London Olympics.
After being diagnosed last year with Sjogren’s Syndrome, working intensively with doctors, and adjusting her diet to all vegan, Williams returned to play on the WTA Tour last March after a six-month break and commented on her improvement.
“For me, health-wise, it’s definitely a journey. I’ve come a long way since this time last year. I’m still tweaking things, working with my doctors and trying to figure things out exactly … I feel like if I can cover this last [summer] stretch that would be amazing for me. At this point, I’m very grateful that I can still play tennis; that I’m still able to live my dreams out here. But, of course, I want more.”
And more is what Williams will try to attain as she makes her way to her fourth Olympics after earlier speculation that her ranking wouldn’t be low enough to allow her direct entry.
“This Olympics is more exciting for me. All the other ones, I didn’t have to worry whether or not I would make it. I was on top of the rankings. I didn’t have any problems. It was, for a lack of a better word, for granted. But this time, I had to fight so hard for it, just to get in contention and come back from so much. For me, this is the ultimate achievement.”
Williams indeed has much to be grateful for, including her sister Serena, with whom she won the Wimbledon women’s doubles title for the fifth time earlier this month.
“It’s extra motivation to win the doubles – it takes my Slam count higher. People say my name with the Slam count going up and it’s exciting. It means a lot to me to play doubles with Serena. Earlier, when I first started [back on the Tour in March], I couldn’t play singles and doubles in the same tournament, it was a lot for me.”
With a rejuvenated outlook and the same killer instinct that took her to the top of the rankings, Williams took on the task of playing a grueling three-of-five events, including women’s singles, and mixed and women’s doubles. It would be a true test of her health in the oppressive D.C. humidity and heat that soared into the mid-90s.
First up, Williams partnered with Leander Paes for mixed doubles, and while her serve showed signs of rust, the team was efficient in their 5-1 win over the Lobsters’ Carly Gullickson-Eagle and Eric Butorac.
After a brief rest, Williams was back on court with Anastasia Rodionova in women’s doubles, taking on Gullickson-Eagle and Irina Falconi. With her expert hands at net and long reach, Venus capped off another 5-1 win over the Lobsters.
Men’s doubles gave Williams the break she needed and time on the bench to laugh with the Rodionova sisters and even devour a burger (sure hope it was vegan!). Meanwhile, Kastles’ players Leander Paes and Bobby Reynolds dealt another heavy blow to the Lobsters, winning 5-0 — already solidifying a team win for the night.
Although, the Kastles had the win in the bag, the most anticipated match of the night pitted Williams against world No. 85 Irina Falconi in the women’s singles event — but luck was not on Williams’ side. As the veteran hit double fault after double fault, Falconi was on mark, hitting a final deep down-the-line forehand to clinch the win, 5-0.
Quick to dispel any concern about her possibly-aching joints due to her autoimmune disease, Williams commented on her dwindling energy during the course of the evening.
“I think I just cooled down, and I couldn’t quite get started back up again. In team tennis, you really have to keep your energy up. You have to manage the stop and go. I didn’t manage it that well.”
Despite Williams’ letdown at the end of the WTT match, her outlook to the Olympics quickly put goals in perspective for the three-time Gold Medalist. Healthier, happier and re-energized, Williams hopes to build on her past success there.
“I’ve been training to bring home medals for the U.S. and I would love if the medal was gold-colored.”
(All other photos and gallery credit to author)