Posted: Mon January 13, 2014 4:33AM; Updated: Tue January 14, 2014 10:53AM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>INSIDE TENNIS

At 33, Venus still relishes competition; more mail

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Venus Williams
Venus Williams has continued to toil away on the Tour, despite not winning a Grand Slam since 2008.
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It appears that the organizers decided to do something different this year at the Australian Open -- they combined the seniors event with the main draw. A quarter century ago, Johan Kriek was the oldest player in the men's draw at age 30. This year? Nearly a quarter of the main draw is north of the 18-29 demographic.

The reasons for the aging of the field have been much discussed. As the pro game becomes increasingly physical, it demands a player's full maturity. As the pro game becomes increasingly global, the notion of a teenager shuttling from Chennai to Dubai to Shanghai strains credulity. Personal theory: The welter of players suffering injuries get the equivalent of a sabbatical and -- like Tommy Haas and Andrea Petkovic -- can extend their careers on the back end.

But another factor that seldom gets discussed: There is something ennobling about struggle, something strengthening about battle, something intoxicating about competition. And players think long and hard before deciding to give that up. This applies to all of sports, but tennis in particular. On what is literally a level playing field, two players match skill and will. One emerges a winner while the other doesn't. You can't really replicate that in Cubicle Nation. Maybe the opportunity for competition is why so many players continue to work in the pro tennis sectors well into their 30s -- and, in some cases, their 40s.

Which brings us to Venus Williams. She is 33 now. As a teenager, she regularly predicted that tennis was a passing fancy, a career she'd soon abandon. And yet, nearly a decade removed from her last Grand Slam title, she is still out there. She's been injured. She's been ill. Her ranking is so modest that she isn't seeded. Doesn't matter.

On Monday, she christened the new Margaret Court Arena, playing No. 22 Ekatarina Makarova of Russia in her first match. In Venus' prime, this is precisely the kind of opponent she'd roll 6-2, 6-2. Here, it was a battle. Venus won the first set but dropped the second set, spraying balls like a fire hose. In the third set, she grabbed a 3-0 lead. Makarova closed to 3-3. In the most tense moments, Venus missed her mark, especially on her returns. Makarova was steadier and took the match 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.

With this shot, Venus proves she's still got her touch

Venus lost. But she competed. She smiled, grimaced; shrieked with disgust and shrieked with delight; pumped her fist and slapped her thigh.

Afterward, she got the predictable questions -- delicately phrased, but the subtext was obvious: You're so far from your old form. When are you going to retire?

"I love tennis," she said flatly.

You have a feeling what she really meant was, "I love competing."

Will she be here in 2015?

"I'd love to come back."

Mailbag

Please note we are looking at temperatures for the first five days here in Melbourne at a minimum of 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). Not good at all for players. I saw a qualifier the other day from Austria named Dominic Thiem. He's a young guy (20 years old) with good junior results in 2011 and a nice all-around game. He beat Martin Klizan, who got into the top 30 early last year. Any thoughts on him for the future?
-- Stalusk, Melbourne

• Oh, he's from Austria? Well, put another shrimp on the barbie, mate.

Nice call, here. Candidly, I didn't know much about Thiem. I peeked in on his match Monday -- a win over Joao Sousa -- and liked what I saw. Not a big guy, but he moves well and absorbs pace well. He plays Kevin Anderson next.

When is Rafael Nadal going to get with the trend and hire a coach who played in the 1980s?
-- Charles, Rome

Here's his agent. Does this count?

Looking at this, it's striking that a guy who was a top-10 player made $3.1 million for his career. Last fall, Nadal made $3.6 million by winning the U.S. Open.

Last week you stated, "But it's an (over)reach to enshrine players with one major title." Do you continue to think Andy Roddick should go in the Hall of Fame? In my opinion, no player should get in the HOF with only one Grand Slam victory, regardless of how many years he or she is in the top 10, how many Davis Cups he or she helps win, or how many times he or she comes in second at a Grand Slam.
-- Kelly G., Louisville

• Actually I've given Deadspin my ballot, so it's a moot point. But if I were to vote, yes, I still think Roddick gets the tap on the shoulder. One Grand Slam is problematic, no doubt, but he earned the No. 1 ranking, reached the final of multiple Wimbledons as well as a U.S. Open, won Masters series events, led the U.S. to a Davis Cup title and was a top-10 fixture for a decade.

Shots, miscellany

Tracy Austin returns to Tennis Channel Academy for a sixth season; the half-hour series begins Monday at 9 p.m. ET. Each episode showcases a different tennis instructor, allowing him or her to share specific drills, techniques and insights.

• No. 27 Jamie Hampton withdrew from the Australian Open with a hip injury, opening up a main-draw spot for another American, Irina Falconi, who took advantage with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Anabel Medina Garrigues in the first round.

Li Na and Bob and Mike Bryan have been voted the International Tennis Writers Association Ambassadors of the Year for the first time. The awards recognize a combination of achievements on the court, conduct that shows tennis in the best possible light and cooperation with the media.

• The USTA announced the hiring of three full-time coaches to USTA Player Development -- Roger Anderson and Anibal Aranda as women's national coaches and Stephen Amritraj as men's national coach.

• Trivia: Anderson is married to WTA pro Chanelle Scheepers.

• James Stuchell of Savannah, Ga., has long-lost siblings: Juan Martin del Potro and the bad guys from Tangled.

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