Venus Williams is 37 years old and having the kind of year that might make any tennis player deliriously happy. In her case, though, so happy that it probably hurts.
Williams appeared in two Grand Slam finals and a semifinal this year, winning 34 of 45 matches thus far. She's been celebrated wherever she set foot, or laid down a scorching serve, for everything from her ability to manage her physical state (she suffers from Sjogren's syndrome) to her burgeoning role as an ambassador for the game.
But there's some complexity behind the dazzling facade of this inspirational story. Williams has seven Grand Slam titles, four Olympic Games gold medals -- and the fierce drive of a champion. You just know that she has to be a little disappointed by how events played out. Missing by a foot is disappointing. Missing by an inch, as Williams did in her last chance in the US Open semifinals, can be heartbreaking.
After losing that match against Sloane Stephens 1-6, 6-0, 7-5, Williams was asked in her news conference if it was a "consolation" to see three fellow Americans in the semifinals. She replied, "Well, to be honest, I'm definitely here to win my matches, not for consolations. That definitely sums it up."
That wasn't just this great champion's last chance on the year to add to her major total. It was her best chance in a year full of surprises, not all of them welcome ones for Venus.
Imagine if Serena, learning just a little earlier that she was pregnant, had pulled out of the tour before the 2017 Australian Open. At that point in the year, no other WTA player appeared capable of stopping Venus. And why did floundering Garbine Muguruza pop to life so unexpectedly -- and so dynamically -- at Wimbledon?
Stephens was ranked No. 934 less than a month before the start of the year's final major. Long touted as a potential Grand Slam champion, Stephens experienced that wonderful "right here, right now" moment that gifted but incomplete players experience -- and it came at the worst possible moment for Venus.
It's often been said that great athletes make their own luck. This just wasn't a year when that applied to Venus Williams. "Sometimes you get the luck," she said after taking the loss to Stephens. "Sometimes you don't."
But Williams still has time. She's currently ranked No. 5 and sitting in sixth place in the race to the WTA Championships in Singapore. The only Grand Slam champion ahead of Williams in the race is the leader, Muguruza. Williams is the only player in contention for Singapore who's actually won the event. That gives her an advantage, and the indoor hard court will suit her game.
The problem is, most of the elite women find it difficult to muster maximum enthusiasm and energy for the fall tour -- either the Asian segment or the low-profile leftover events in Europe and Russia. The four women currently ranked ahead of Williams are entered in Beijing and nothing else until Singapore.
Williams is playing only one event, Hong Kong. Beijing is a premier mandatory (the top tier of WTA events) with a load of rankings points and prize money on offer. Hong Kong is a lowly International event with just $226,750 in prize money (compared to $6 million-plus in Beijing). You can be sure it's the appearance money drawing Williams to Hong Kong, where she'll get the chance to shed some rust before Singapore.
Asia hasn't been overly kind to Williams, at least not until Singapore. She's played the blue-chip Beijing event six times, with just a 4-4 record. She lost in the first round the past two years, but when it was suggested that she ought to consider preparing differently, she just said, "No. I think I've played so many tournaments in my life that you just go in the same way, unless it's like a totally different surface or something."
The odds that Venus can lock down that precious eighth Grand Slam title next year will be shaped by a few obstacles. Serena is already planning to return to the tour early enough to defend her Australian Open title. The other three American women who made the US Open semifinals will undoubtedly be factors, as will the usual suspects and some new stars, such as Jelena Ostapenko and Elina Svitolina. Venus will be 38 in the coming year; inevitably, the opportunities will begin to dry up.
Victory in the WTA Championships would end Venus' year on a high note, and leave her nicely positioned for 2018. As she said about her goals at US Open: "For me, it's about putting myself in the position all the time to get the titles, and that's exactly what I did. That's all I could do. So that's the point of being here is to put yourself in position to win."
Can she do that one more time this year, in Singapore?