Qualifying begins: 26 June
The Draw: 30 June
Pre-event Press Conferences: 1 & 2 July
Order of Play: 2 July
Championships begin: 3 July
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They come, they go, but Venus Williams endures. The world was a different place in the distant days of 1997 when she made her debut at the All England Club, and whatever else has changed in the two decades since, the 37-year-old American remains a winner.
Belgium’s Elise Mertens deserved vast credit for the stringent test she delivered on her main draw debut here, but the five-time Wimbledon champion’s huge experience ultimately meant it was curtains for Mertens. Venus celebrated the start of her 20th Wimbledon campaign (a back injury kept her away from Wimbledon 2013) by defeating the world No.54 7-6(7), 6-4 in one hour and 40 minutes.
“Tennis is still the love of my life,” said Williams afterwards. “It gives me joy. This is my 20th Wimbledon and I never thought that I'd play this many. But I'm grateful to be here and to play. I love the game, and I love it here, so it's always a feeling of coming back home. It's a special time of year.
“In this match there were times where I thought the match was over, and then it wasn't. So it was a lot of credit to her playing amazing. It wasn't easy to convert the last points. She played her best tennis there. It's never over until it's over.”
These two had met only once previously, just one month ago at Roland Garros, when Venus granted the 21-year-old a scant four games. This time threatened a still more dominant win, as a nervy start from Mertens saw the seven-time Grand Slam winner gallop off so fast that she had points for 4-0. But the Belgian clawed her way back to level at 3-3, going for her shots and finding some fine winners.
With the No.1 Court crowd warming to her, she forced Williams to work all the way into the tie-break where she saved four set points. But perhaps crucially, the American was never behind at any point in the set, and she took her 2017 tie-break record to a formidable nine won out of 10 played by closing out the breaker 9-7.
On this display, it was no wonder that Mertens has declared grass her favourite surface, notwithstanding that she gleaned just one win from her three pre-Wimbledon warm-up events. This has been a good year for her – she won her debut WTA title in Hobart as a qualifier, having ended 2016 ranked 125. For the past three years she has trained at the Kim Clijsters Academy in Belgium, and Clijsters herself arrived courtside at the start of the second set to see her compatriot not only break Williams again but hold points for 3-0. (It was vaguely amusing, at this point, to muse on the fact that Clijsters – who is three years younger than Venus – retired way back in 2012.)
But in her first match on grass this year, Williams would not be blown off course, and wrested back control of the match. As the No.1 Court crowd got their first glimpse of the roof currently under construction (it will be ready for 2019), light rain fell late in the second set, becoming sufficiently heavy that it forced the players off court at 5-3, deuce, when Mertens had already saved two match points. But when they resumed half an hour later, roof or no roof ultimately there was no shelter for the Belgian. She held serve, and saved two more match points, but Venus served it out.