NEW YORK — Back in 1973, one of the greatest baseball players to put on a uniform knew his time had come to call it quits.
“Willie, it’s time to say goodbye to America,” said Willie Mays.
Fifty years later, and not far from where Mays finished his Hall of Fame career at the old Shea Stadium as a New York Met, another great athlete might be inclined to say something similar playing on tennis’ biggest stage at the U.S. Open.
Venus Williams tried to turn back the clock Tuesday night under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium. But time waits for no one, so they say, and at age 43, she was unable to rekindle that magic that had carried her in the past.
It took just one hour and 14 minutes to settle things as Greet Minnen, a relative unknown from Belgium, dominated Venus to the tune of a 6-1, 6-1 straight-set victory. It was akin to watching a great boxer well past his prime, unable to deliver blows or avoid punishment from his younger opponent.
Whether this was the last we see of Venus on the court, only she knows. Something tells me this won’t be the last we see of her. But at age 43, winning isn’t the concern. She last won a singles tournament in 2016 in Taiwan.
No, this is about competing. Winning sets, much less matches, are an ongoing challenge. Her body is not as cooperative as it once was — she pulled out of the tournament in Cleveland last week to rest her knee so she could play at Flushing Meadows.
So the grand lady walked into the arena that has provided so many thrills over the years, particularly the two U.S. Open titles in 2000 and 2001. She was rightly saluted by the more than 20,000 fans who packed cavernous Ashe and she attempted to turn back the clock one more time, in this case, against Minnen, a 26-year-old who had to battle through qualifying just to earn a spot in the field.
“For me, I haven’t had a lot of chances to play this year or last year,” she said. “I think the key for me is to just stay healthy and gain some momentum. I mean, that’s the key for any athlete.”
Normally, this would be a gimme for Venus, who was given a wild card entry. But not anymore. And it was indeed a battle for the Lynwood, Calif., native who along with her younger sister Serena learned the game in Compton under the watchful eye of her father Richard and who turned pro at the tender age of 14.
Even with the crowd urging her on, almost begging her to find a way, it was going to be tough for Venus to stay in the hunt Tuesday night. You can have all the success in the world, all the experience, all the greatness, and it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. Her shot-making was sporadic at best. Her movement on the court seemed like it was slow motion and she simply didn’t have any answers for her younger, unsung opponent.
When asked what will determine what she does in he future, she said: “I wouldn’t tell you, so… I don’t know. I don’t know why you’re asking.”
As for Minnen. She’ll cherish this moment forever. She’s an outer-court player, normally toiling in anonymity on Court 7 or 8 in the late morning-early afternoon. Being under the bright lights of Ashe on ESPN, that’s not something she’s accustomed to.
Yet here she was, giving it her all, trying to shield herself from the crowd that was rooting for her to fail.
New York is tough for any player to compete, be it the noise from the planes overhead, the subway rumbling by or the spectators thinking they were at a Knicks game instead of a tennis match. But then throw in the component of rooting home one of their own, a two-time U.S. Open champion, a seven-time Grand Slam winner and whose early-life story was made into a motion picture, well, that might be too much for anyone to cope with.
“For me, this was incredible to play a legend like her,” Minnen said of Venus. “She has amazing strokes. I tried to be aggressive ad make her move as much as possible. I also used some drop shots that seemed to work.”
On this night, there was no Hollywood ending. It was more like a noir movie from the 1950s — dark and foreboding that normally doesn’t end well.
Having had her serve broken five times offset what little positive Venus was able to accomplish. An ace at 112 mph. A forehand winner down the line now and then. That was about it.
In the end, she looked and played every bit of her 43 years. And while she refuses to say definitively what her tennis future is, the reality is after 100 appearances at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, her two U.S. Open championships and her legacy fully cemented, Venus Williams might want to think about what Willie Mays said in 1973 — “It’s time to say goodbye to America.”