Zaccardi: Venus Williams ponders Tokyo 2020 after unlikely silver-medal run
RIO DE JANEIRO – An ill Venus Williams lost her first-round singles match Saturday. She and sister Serena lost their first-round doubles match Sunday.
Yet there was Williams on Tuesday, spending two hours practicing with Rajeev Ram, who two weeks earlier wasn’t even on the U.S. Olympic team.
A U.S. coach said that commitment and professionalism led to Williams bagging her record-tying fifth Olympic tennis medal, a silver in mixed doubles.
Williams and Ram clinched at least a silver Saturday by advancing to the mixed final. Fellow Americans Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock rallied past them 6-7 (3), 6-1, 10-7 in the final on Sunday.
Her consolation was tying the 92-year-old record for overall tennis medals and becoming the most decorated Olympic tennis player in history. And she might just come back for Tokyo 2020.
“God willing, I imagine if I really wanted to be there, I could,” she said.
Afterward, the other three Americans on the court gushed about Williams. Of course. For wanting to play mixed doubles after the struggles on and off the court. For playing well.
“I thought my forehand was good before today,” said Sock, who played against Williams for the first time. “Some guys usually get intimidated by forehands. She was stepping up and smashing it with the backhand. I might need to go back onto the practice court and work on some things.”
The practice court is where U.S. men’s head coach Jay Berger found Williams and Ram on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after they were entered as the second U.S. mixed doubles team.
“How professional Venus is,” said Berger, who wasn’t sure that Williams and Ram would make the field based on rankings until the entries closed Tuesday.
“When they found out they got in, they were out on court for two hours, working out some of the kinks. I think that’s incredible, and I think it really, really was one of the keys of them getting to the final. They had their not-so-good day in practice.”
There was thought Williams’ Olympic career was over after those first-round defeats. As it turned out, her fifth Games were just getting started.
To reach the final, Williams and Ram beat three mixed teams that each had at least one player with a Grand Slam doubles title.
"With Serena, I expect to win, I got to be honest,” Williams said. “And [Ram], we never play together, and we didn't know how we were going to play together. So the emotion is almost even bigger because you don't know what to expect. So it's a wild feeling, it's an amazing feeling."
Williams, in her calm, quiet way, said after the match she was appreciative to earn any medal. Her singles gold came in 2000. She and Serena took doubles titles in 2000, 2008 and 2012.
Back in 2012, Williams said her plan was to “go out with a bang” in Rio. She remained one of the top four U.S. women’s singles players to qualify for her fourth Olympic team this spring.
Her overall ranking now, No. 6, is its highest since 2011. At age 36.
Williams became the second-oldest singles player since the sport returned to the Olympic program following a 64-year break in 1988. If she is back for Tokyo, she will break Jonas Bjorkman’s age record.
Ram, 32, wanted to be in Rio but didn’t qualify.
On the rankings cutoff date, he was the sixth-best U.S. singles player (eliminating those who opted to skip Rio) and the best doubles player not already going to Rio.
He missed the team and set forth on the North American hard-court summer season instead.
Ram was playing an ATP tournament in Toronto last month when he got a call from Berger informing that the Olympic champion doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan was considering pulling out of the Games.
Be ready, Berger told him.
The Bryan brothers later withdrew due to health concerns. The U.S. Tennis Association squeezed Ram onto the Olympic roster as the last athlete named for the entire U.S. delegation of 554 athletes, with about a day and a half to spare.
Ram canceled plans to play an ATP event in Atlanta, a tournament that top-ranked American John Isner chose to play instead of the Olympics. The Olympics don’t offer rankings points.
“The Olympics only come around once every four years,” Ram said, “and Atlanta comes around a lot.”
The flurry of player withdrawals before the Games brought questions about tennis’ place in the Olympics. And then the Williams sisters were upset.
But other compelling stories emerged, from Monica Puig winning Puerto Rico’s first Olympic title to the inspiring runs by Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro. Williams and Ram make that list, too.
“The Olympics has been so good for tennis,” Williams said. “All I can say is that it’s been beyond my dreams.”