After 16 consecutive years of always showing up at Wimbledon, winning five titles along the way, Venus Williams pulled out of the grass-court Grand Slam tournament on Tuesday, citing a lower back injury.
Williams, who turned 33 on Monday, never had missed Wimbledon since making her debut there in 1997, although she lost in the first round a year ago. She won the singles trophy — it happens to be called the Venus Rosewater Dish — in 2000-01, 2005 and 2007-08, to go with two more major championships at the U.S. Open in 2000-01.
But Williams has been dealing with a bad back for a while, playing only three matches in the last two-plus months. She was clearly hampered by the injury during a three-set, three-hour loss to 40th-ranked Urszula Radwanska of Poland in the first round of the French Open last month, then cited her back when she and younger sister Serena withdrew from the doubles competition in Paris.
The older Williams said after the singles loss at Roland Garros — her first opening-round exit there in a dozen years — that the inflammation in her back made it painful to serve hard, limiting one of the best parts of her game.
Once ranked No. 1, Williams is currently No. 34. Still learning to live as a professional athlete with an energy-sapping autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, she has two first-round losses in the past four Grand Slam tournaments. That includes her defeat at Wimbledon last year, the first time she’d left a major championship that early since she lost in the first round of the Australian Open in 2006.
“With what I’ve gone through, it’s not easy. But I’m strong and I’m a fighter. You know, I don’t think I’m just playing for me now. I think I’m playing for a lot of people who haven’t felt well,” Williams said after her loss to Radwanska. “I think for me today, it’s a positive to be able to play three hours. I’m constantly finding ways to get better and to feel better.”
Play begins at Wimbledon next Monday. Serena Williams, who is ranked No. 1, will be a big favorite to win what would be her sixth Wimbledon title and 17th major championship overall. She’s won 31 matches in a row, the longest single-season streak on the women’s tour since Venus put together a 35-match run in 2000.