“I am not disappointed,” insisted a just-turned-17-year-old Venus Williams, her teeth in clear braces and her hair in white beads, during a press conference in late June 1997. Her hyped first Wimbledon showing had just been cut extremely short thanks to a three-set first-round loss to 18-year-old Magdalena Grzybowska. “It’s my first Wimbledon,” she continued, “and there will be many more to come.”
Williams is now playing in her 20th Wimbledon, having missed the tournament only once, in 2013, due to a bad back. She has reached the semifinals in a full half of those appearances, and has ultimately lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish as champion five times. Wimbledon is Venus’s showcase, her beat, her muse. It is where she won her first Grand Slam title, in 2000, in a run that included consecutive wins over Martina Hingis, her younger sister Serena, and Lindsay Davenport — a draw that should have been bitten by a turn-of-the-millennium mosquito and preserved in a tennis ball–sized glob of amber. And it is the site of her most recent Grand Slam title, in 2008, when she defeated Serena in the final. (Later that night, the sisters teamed up to win the doubles trophy.)
“I think definitely winning this tournament so many times definitely puts you into the stratosphere, to be honest,” she said after that fifth Wimbledon singles win in 2008. “I think had I had this achievement at any other tournament, it would have been awesome, but not nearly the same meaning as Wimbledon.”
On Thursday morning, as a pregnant Serena likely watches on TV back home, Venus will play in her 10th Wimbledon semifinal. She is doing so following a car crash in Florida in early June that killed a 78-year-old man and, for weeks, was deemed Williams’s fault in the police report — until new video evidence was released several days ago that determined her driving was not to blame. On the first day of Wimbledon, after being questioned about the fatal crash during a press conference, Williams broke down and left the podium in tears before returning to finish the session. “I have no idea what tomorrow will bring,” she said during the interview, when asked about her emotional state. Now, 10 days later, she will attempt to become the active women’s player with the most wins at the tournament. (She currently has a record of 86–14 at Wimbledon; Serena’s is 86–10.)
But, while 87 Wimbledon singles wins sure would be nice, what Williams truly wants is that 88th.
At 37 years old, Williams is the oldest woman to reach a Wimbledon semifinal since Martina Navratilova did so in 1994. During Tuesday’s quarterfinal match between Williams and the recently crowned 20-year-old French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, Navratilova remarked that she knew what it was like for Williams to be playing such youngsters. “You know you’re old when you are older than your opponent’s mother,” Navratilova said.
Williams’s past three matches have all been against women born in 1997 — the year Venus first went bust at Wimbledon but also the year, later in the summer, that she became the first unseeded woman to reach the U.S. Open final. (Her path there went through Irina Spirlea, whose deliberate bump into Williams during a changeover led to Richard Williams declaring the Romanian a “big white turkey.”) Williams lost to Hingis in that championship match, but was nevertheless the one featured on the cover of the September 15, 1997, Sports Illustrated, with the headline “Party Crasher.” Inside the magazine, S.L. Price’s piece on Williams had a more excellent title: “Venus Envy.”
Hingis was and is and always will be remembered as a hell of a player; she has five Grand Slam singles titles to her name (Williams has seven). But, glancing at the span of Hingis’s career next to that of Williams is illustrative of the latter’s lasting power. Only a few months Williams’s junior, Hingis has retired and un-retired twice since that 1997 U.S. Open. And while she’s now an accomplished doubles specialist, the last time she reached a major singles semifinal was back in 2002.
Williams has missed only six total majors since then, despite a back injury and a 2011 diagnosis of Sjogren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune condition that causes debilitating pain and fatigue. Between 2012 and 2014, she failed to progress past the third round of a major tournament; her career seemed to be nearing its conclusion. Instead, she just keeps adding more to the story.
On Tuesday morning, the 6-foot-1 Williams showed few signs of suffering in her quarterfinal match. She lunged for balls with her spidery limbs and made Ostapenko pay for her relatively weak serve. Venus kept points short to blunt the strengths of her baselining opponent. The win guaranteed Williams a top 10 position in the women’s tennis rankings, at least — “not bad for the oldest woman in the top 300,” deadpanned a Guardian liveblogger.
Meanwhile, many of Wimbledon’s biggest favorites have been winnowed away. Top seed Angelique Kerber was defeated by no. 14 Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain in the fourth round. (Muguruza, who won the 2016 French Open, is the only player left besides Williams with a major title under her belt.) Ostapenko beat fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina before falling to Williams on Tuesday. №3 Karolina Pliskova didn’t play past the second round. Streaky American CoCo Vandeweghe defeated no. 5 Caroline Wozniacki on Manic Monday before being dispatched in the quarterfinals by the unseeded Magdalena Rybarikova.
In a marathon three-set match that included two tiebreakers and ended with the bizarre horror-movie scream from the Wimbledon stands that sullied match point, 26-year-old Johanna Konta bested no. 2 Simona Halep to earn the right to face Williams in front of a home crowd. Konta, the first British woman to reach the semifinals since 1978, will be a significant challenge for Williams given her borderline-distracting pre-serve rituals and her knack for keeping the damn ball in play again and again and again. Of the five matches the two have played since 2015, three have gone a full three sets. Still, while Konta might be the hometown favorite, the grass courts of Wimbledon have, for two decades, been Williams’s home.
“I’m not thinking about age,” Williams said in the press conference after her quarterfinal victory. “I feel quite capable, to be honest, and powerful. So whatever age that is, as long as I feel like that, then I know I can contend for titles every time.”
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Martina Hingis won seven Grand Slam singles titles; she won five.