It could have been another day at the Australian Open of frivolous themes, with the focus on Venus Williams’s latest risqué tennis dress. But then Williams screamed in pain as she lost the last point of the first set, limped to her chair and hobbled slowly off the court for treatment.
It was hardly out of line to wonder whether she would bother to return with her plucky, second-round opponent Sandra Zahlavova already up a set and looking eager to run (and grunt) for hours more.
But Williams, after 17 years as a professional, has yet to retire from a Grand Slam singles match, and when she finally re-emerged from the tunnel leading to Rod Laver Arena with tape wrapped tightly around her upper right leg, her usual, impassive expression was gone, replaced by a grim look that her mother and coach, Oracene Price, said she knew well.
“She had the no-lose look, the I’m-definitely-not-losing look,” Price said afterward, shaking her big curls. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen that one, but when I saw it, I quietly knew what was going to happen.”
Making it happen would require plenty more time and grinding effort, but with Zahlavova looking disoriented and ultimately distraught, Williams painstakingly turned the match around, winning the final two sets despite obvious limitations to close out a strange-but-true 6-7 (8), 6-0, 6-4 victory.
“It was really tough, but I’m a long way from home, and it’s such a long way home; I didn’t want to go back yet,” Williams, the No. 4 seed, said on court. “I don’t know what happened. I just started going for shots, and I’m not sure she was as composed as before. You’ve got to be able to play under all kinds of circumstances — good, bad, strange, weird, bizarre, all of the above. So I was glad to come through.”
Her delight may be tempered by the knowledge that her chances of going deep in this Grand Slam tournament are now significantly compromised. The problem, according to Williams, is a hip flexor strain, specifically in the right psoas muscle, a major muscle that runs from the lower spine to the hip.