SINGAPORE — Twenty-three years ago this month, a 14-year-old Venus Williams made her pro debut at the 1994 Bank of the West Classic. It was unforgettable — those white beads that clanked in her hair, the unbranded clothing of a newcomer without endorsements, the sight of a player who had taken the most unconventional routes to the WTA tour.
Once indelible images, they have become faded memories. That’s what happens when you’re performing at the top of your game more than two decades later.
This week at the year-end WTA Finals in Singapore, Williams, now 37, remarkably rolled into the final. Although she failed to secure the second season-ending championship of her career, she was remarkable throughout the event.
On Sunday, she was beaten by a confident Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-4. Despite the loss, Williams walked away from Singapore with a newfound perspective, something you wouldn’t expect given how long she has been part of this game.
She believes the hard times this season have helped enhance her resolve. In June, Williams was involved in a traffic accident near her Florida in which a 78-year-old passenger tragically died a week later.
She broke down in tears when asked of the incident after the opening round at Wimbledon. Since then she has not opened up, but whatever she was feeling, her on-court results seemed unaffected. She reached the final at the All England Club two weeks later, and then the semis of the US Open in September.
“You know, when you’re living a public life, there’s no privacy, so I try to keep both of my lives separate, to be honest,” Williams said in the media session the day before the WTA Finals began.
Unlike the average citizen, she had to mature in front of the entire world. She discovered, perhaps more than ever this season, that fame and fortune isn’t always desirable, but she looks at it as a challenge.
“I never saw it as tough because it’s not how I see life,” Williams said. “I’ve learned that it’s important to enjoy it all. I have enjoyed it all, learned from it all, and can pretty much look back at it with no regrets.”
On Sunday, Wozniacki, as she was all week, played too well. They had met seven times previously, and Williams had surrendered only one set. But this final was different. Williams took chances, hitting 31 winners but committed 32 unforced errors. She nearly made a comeback from 5-0 down in the second set, but Wozniacki was steadier. That was the difference.
“Eight is my lucky number, so I was hoping if I was going to beat her at least once in my career, it would be today,” Wozniacki said.
Wozniacki then praise her opponent.
“I think Venus is amazing,” Wozniacki said. “She’s always taken me under her wing and just kind of treated me like a little sister and made sure I was OK. When I was 16, she asked me to play doubles with her in Doha, and that was kind of the first experience I had with both Venus and Serena.”
Despite not winning a title this season, Williams was the only player to reach two Grand Slam finals, losing at the Australian Open to sister Serena Williams and at Wimbledon to Garbine Muguruza. If you include the WTA Finals, Venus starred in the final of three of the five most prestigious events of the season.
“As a person, as long as I known her, she’s as classy as can be and always respectful,” David Witt, Venus’ coach for more than a decade, told ESPN.com. “She’s got the biggest heart, fights to the end and never gives up, and that’s why she’s a champion.”
Williams’ résumé speaks for itself. She owns seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 in doubles, two mixed and five Olympic medals (four gold, one silver).
Martina Hingis, also 37, announced her third retirement at the WTA Finals this week, ending the season as part of the No. 1 team in the world. She first encountered Williams in 1997, winning their three meetings that year, including in the US Open final.
“I definitely admire her willpower, and to go through the struggles and everything,” Hingis said. “To fight back and have another year like she’s had, this one, is amazing. Sometime you have tough losses, and that’s when you ask yourself why you do it still and do you really want to go through all that grind, but for her, it’s definitely paid off.”
All indications point to Williams thinking it’s still worth the effort, even though she would not elaborate on her 2018 plans.
“Obviously in tennis, when you’re executing your game, there is no greater feeling,” Williams said, smiling. “But that’s something you fight for every day. I’ve worked hard to get there, and here.”
Chris Evert, in Singapore as one of the invited legends to the event, marveled at how Williams continues to improve her game.
“She keeps finding new inspiration and levels in her game,” Evert said. “A lot of people, when they have something to go towards, something that is really exciting and they are passionate about, they don’t mind retiring, but this with Venus, this is still the passion in her life.”
Witt agrees and fully expects Williams to be back on the court in 2018.
“I don’t see her stopping now,” Witt said. “She loves competing.”