There’s a certain lèse-majesté in turning up at Wimbledon and calling yourself Venus. And it’s worse if the original Venus herself is in attendance, staring you down from the other side of the net. Certainly, Michael Venus, the world No 11 doubles player from New Zealand, would have known that every time the wags in the crowd shouted “C’mon Venus!” (or even “Marry me, Venus!”), they were exclusively cheering for the five-time Wimbledon women’s singles champion, at whom he was firing treasonable volleys.
Venus Williams has graced this tournament with her regal presence for 24 years now, just shy of her silver jubilee. On Friday evening, playing mixed doubles on No 1 Court with Jamie Murray, there was every evidence that she still rules OK. In spite of her age de ella (42), in spite of her lack of match practice since last July, and in spite of the persistent leg injury still hinted at by the tape on her right thigh, Williams still had the power to make her namesake regret taking on her serve.
There was just the right amount of jeopardy in her and Murray’s first-round defeat of Venus and his Polish partner Alicja Rosolska 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3 in a match that took three sets and two and a quarter hours. After the game, Williams joshed her partner for playing hard to get (he turned her down for this gig last year, pleading a sore neck), but the truth was, she herself had had no plans to pick up her racket until she watched her sister Serena in action on Center Court and felt suddenly inspired. “I saw the grass and I got excited,” said Williams. “That’s why I was asking him last minute. He just had a baby, too, so I know there’s a lot going on.”
Their siblings have, of course, set a precedent that both will be keen to beat. The Andy Murray and Serena Williams glamor pairing of 2019 seems, three years on, like a collective hallucination of happier, pre-pandemic days. But the footage is real, and that bigfoot duo made it as far as the third round before they were stopped by top seeds Bruno Soares and Nicole Melichar-Martinez.
This, then, is classic algorithm programming: if you liked that, you’ll love this. If anything, the sequel promises an even better ending. Venus Williams has cannily picked the brother with form in this format: Jamie has won the mixed doubles here twice, and Williams is looking to upgrade the runner-up medal she won with Bob Bryan. (If you don’t remember it, it’s probably because it happened 16 years ago.)
If it took a few games for this short-notice partnership to hit its stride, it looked irresistible once it did. The pair broke in the fourth game, to general delight, when Williams passed her namesake with a forehand down the tramline. Venus and Rosolska’s gameplan, targeting Williams’s serve de ella and forcing her around the court, faltered against the resilience of her groundstrokes. By the time Murray was serving out the first set to love, her master-reflexes were providing the perfect counter to her baseline power. Call it the reverse mullet: party at the front, business at the back.
Their opponents came out fighting in the second set, Venus smashing a ball on the bounce into the first tier of spectators. There was nothing but frisson between the teams as they headed towards a second-set tie-break, and the atmosphere was cooking like the popcorn tennis at the net. Even the a stern-voiced intervention from the umpire couldn’t halt a Mexican wave as it took its third lap of the court.
There was a pause as the roof closed before the climactic set and Murray, who had foot faulted a couple of times, slid straight into his first service game with three consecutive aces. He and Williams forced the break to go 4-1 up, then held serve under the ever-present pressure; by the time the final ball was hit out of court, even their heads were turning in perfect unison. Judy Murray, Wimbledon’s resident Queen Mother, was on her feet in applause. Not Andy, not Serena? No problem.