Venus continues to show resilience

After Venus Williams lost in the first round of this year’s Australian Open, I found it hard to imagine her at age 37 having as good a season as she did in 2017.

But her run to the semi-finals at Indian Wells, considered the fifth Grand Slam tournament on the professional tennis tour, once again shows we can never count Venus out. With so many big tournaments left to play, she still has a shot at duplicating or exceeding what turned out to be her best year ever in prize money.

Venus raked in more than $5.4 million last year to lead the Women’s Tennis Association in earnings. What made this accomplishment extraordinary is that she did it without winning a single tournament.

How? By reaching the finals of two Grand Slams – the Australian Open and Wimbledon – as well as the finals of the year-end championships, the semi-finals of the US Open and the fourth round of the French Open.

Venus also reached the quarterfinals at Indian Wells in 2017, and she made it to the semi-finals in Miami and Rome, also top-tier events.

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While Venus’s 2017 record at major tournaments captured the attention of many in the tennis community, given her age and the fact she still suffers from the energy-sapping Sjogren’s Syndrome disease, her finish as the WTA’s top prize money earner has gone largely unnoticed.

To put it in perspective, Venus has won $40.2 million over her more than 20-year career, second only to her sister Serena’s $84.4 million among active players. But the only other year Venus closed at No.1 in prize money was 2001.

She won six singles titles that year, including both the Wimbledon and US Open championships for the second consecutive year and the Australian Open doubles crown with sister Serena. Her earnings total for the year was $2.6 million.

Before last year’s haul, Venus’s highest year-end total was $3.7 million in 2008 when she finished No. 2 in the money rankings. She won three titles that year, including her seventh Wimbledon championship, a year after the esteemed London tournament joined the other Grand Slams in providing equal prize money for men and women.

Venus arguably had the best season on the WTA tour in 2017, but it was Garbine Muguruza of Spain who won the WTA Player of the Year award last October. Muguruza defeated Venus for the Wimbledon crown and won the Western & Southern Open, another WTA Premier event, in Cincinnati.

Among the six Player of the Year nominees – the other four were year-end No. 1 Simona Halep, French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko, Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic and Ukrainian Elina Svitolina – no one had a better record in the slams than Venus, who went 20-4.

She won $5.46 million while playing in just 16 tournaments, the fewest of any of the contenders. Muguruza finished second in prize money with $5.43 million while playing in 21 tournaments.

Venus started the year ranked No. 17 and ended it at No. 5 (she currently is No. 8), the highest ranked American woman and higher ranked of the Williams sisters. Serena, who went on maternity leave after winning the Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant, saw her top ranking drop to No. 22.

Voting on the WTA’s year-end player awards was completed well before the season was over and the year-end No.1 decided, drawing criticism from ESPN.com’s Peter Bodo, who made a case for Venus. In December, Bodo proclaimed Venus as ESPN.com’s selection for the WTA’s MVP for 2017, citing her influence on the game as a major factor in his decision.

“No one player was able to distance herself from the pack in 2017, and each top pro had some striking shortcoming,” Bodo wrote. “But Williams’ ability to overcome age and physical frailty, along with her consistency in the majors and the impact she exerted on her peers as well as the public, makes her our choice.”

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Venus has been making an impact from the start of her career. Her impassioned 2006 Op-Ed essay for equal pay in tennis is widely considered the persuasive voice that pushed reluctant Wimbledon officials into granting equal prize money for men and women in 2007.

Who could have guessed at the time that 10 years later Venus would be the chief beneficiary of the equal pay movement to end the year at No. 1 in earnings without having won any of the four official Grand Slam tournaments, the unofficial fifth slam or the year-end championship?

In reaching the semi-finals at Indian Wells this year, Venus pocketed a $327,965 paycheck. That brings her 2018 earnings to $384,734, well off her pace of 2017. But all it will take is another Grand Slam final or two to put her right back in the run for the money.

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