As Venus Williams entered Centre Court for her 24th Wimbledon appearance at age 43, greeted by a standing ovation, she held a green exercise band overhead with both hands and stretched it while striding to her sideline seat.
Once her first-round match against Elina Svitolina began, Williams played like a throwback version of herself. Those big serves. Those crisp strokes. Quickly, she was a point from a 3-0 lead on Monday.
And then, moving forward to attempt a volley, Williams slipped on the green grass. Her right foot gave way. She collapsed to the ground. She shrieked and clutched at her right knee, which already was covered by a beige sleeve. Williams twice was treated by a trainer — including getting that knee taped up during a medical timeout after the first set — and although the American kept playing, she could not manage to overcome 2019 Wimbledon semifinalist Svitolina in a 6-4, 6-3 defeat.
Williams was the oldest player in this year’s field and the fourth-oldest to compete in the main draw at Wimbledon. Svitolina was only 2 when Williams made her Wimbledon debut in 1997 and just 5 when Williams won the event for the first time in 2000.
She would go on to capture the titles at the All England Club in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2008, too, along with a pair of U.S. Open trophies in singles — plus 14 in women’s doubles with her younger sister, Serena, who retired after last season.
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The older Williams also was the runner-up at Wimbledon four times, most recently during a resurgent 2017, a season in which she reached a total of two finals and another semifinal at majors. Since then? Williams — who announced her diagnosis with Sjögren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping auto-immune disease that can cause joint pain, in 2011 — has lost in the first round at 10 of her most recent 15 Grand Slam events.
There were some vintage moments on Monday. Serves at up to 117 mph. The big cuts on forehands and two-handed backhands that either produced clean winners or led to forced errors by Svitolina.
There also were 33 unforced errors, 18 more than Svitolina. Williams’ total in that category included eight double-faults.
Still, the crowd certainly was appreciative of the persistence and effort Williams displayed on Monday, rising to salute her and shower her with applause when she left the court with a quick wave.