Clarence Hill

Connecting with unspeakable tragedy and rooting hard for Venus Williams

Venus Williams has a lot more than tennis on her mind these days.
Venus Williams has a lot more than tennis on her mind these days. AP

There are many reasons to root for Venus Williams at Wimbledon this year.

At 37, she is still America’s best hope for a title.

And she is American tennis royalty with seven Grand Slam titles even though she hasn’t won one since 2008, largely because of the dominance of her younger sister Serena, who is the greatest women’s tennis player of all time and easily the most decorated American player in history which arguably makes her the best American player ever – no matter what windbag John McEnroe says.

But back to Venus, her efforts and play have also been challenged by Sjogren’s syndrome, which she was diagnosed with in 2011. It’s an incurable autoimmune illness that dries out tear and saliva glands. It also can affect joints, cause fatigue and be defined by chronic pain.

Yet, an aging Venus has played on, against competitors half her age.

She is back in the semifinals of Wimbledon after Tuesday’s triumph over 20-year old Jelena Ostapenko, the reigning French Open champion.

Venus is just two wins away from adding to her own historic Wimbledon total, thanks also to the absence of Serena, who is on leave from the tour while pregnant.

Her five previous titles have only been surpassed by the legendary likes of Martina Navratilova (9), Serena (7), Steffi Graff (7) and, on the men’s side, Roger Federer (6).

Venus is also having to deal with the personal grief of her June 9 car wreck that caused the death of another person.

According to reports, 78-year-old Jerome Barson was killed and his wife, Linda, was injured after colliding at an intersection with Williams’s SUV, going five miles per hour.

When Williams took the court to open Wimbledon she was considered at fault for the accident by the police in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

It has been since been ruled that she was not at fault and that she entered the intersection legally.

And while that should ease the burden of a pending lawsuit, it doesn’t extinguish the pain of being party to someone’s death, even unintentionally.

That’s where it hits home for me. And why I couldn’t root for harder for Venus to win Wimbledon this year.

I had a similar ordeal in 2001 while covering Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, Calif.

It was a split camp that year. They opened in Wichita Falls for two weeks then transitioned to Oxnard.

But the excitement of covering training camp alongside the beautiful mountains and beaches of California gave way to the terrifying sounds of screeching metal one evening on U.S. Highway 101.

It’s a night I will never forget.

Ray Buck was my partner on the beat. I have had several since 1997 – Josie Karp, Kevin Lyons, Rick Herrin, Jennifer Engel, Mac Engel, Charean Williams and Drew Davison to name them all.

Buck and I watched the HBO football camp series HardKnocks in our room. It was the rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens.

And then we drove into Ventura for a drink. We had one drink and left because no one was there.

I got back on the 101 Freeway headed back to the hotel.

A motorcycle soon sped past me on the far right side. He jumped to the middle lane but didn’t see a van. He collided with the van and fell under my car.

I stopped, got out the car to look for him and couldn’t find him.

Police cars immediately came upon the scene.

A policeman asked to get back in my car and roll backwards.

The body was stuck under my car.

Blood was every where.

It was a horrible situation.

And then I was asked to take a field sobriety test.

Buck was ordered back behind the car and an officer had me alone.

Concern went from the driver to me. My career. My family. My then-seven month old daughter Channing … all flashed before my eyes.

This was not my fault. Yet, somehow I could get blamed.

Fortunately, I passed the test.

And the real truth is that the motorcyclist was being chased by the police at the time, which is why they arrived so quickly on the scene.

Yet, I was given a sobriety test as if it was my fault. What if I had had one more drink? How would this situation have played out?

The victim was taken to the hospital with multiple fractures and broken bones. I still don’t know how long he survived.

Those images and that experience will never leave me.

It all came rushing back watching the Williams story unfold, watching her break into tears at Wimbledon when asked about it.

And reading her Facebook post: “I am devastated and heartbroken by this accident. My heartfelt condolences go out to the family and friends of Jerome Barson and I continue to keep them in my thoughts and prayers.”

Being legally right doesn’t make the pain and anguish of being involved in a tragedy go away.

Neither would a sixth Wimbledon title.

Considering what she has endured over the years, most certainly over the last month, Venus has proved to be a champion many times over.

The possibility of her holding the Venus Rosewater Dish, the ladies singles trophy at Wimbledon, could provide comfort amidst the pain.

I know I’m rooting hard for her.

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