Venus Williams came to Wimbledon with the cloud of a fatal motor accident and a wrongful-death lawsuit hanging over her. “I am devastated and heartbroken by this accident,” Williams, who owns a home near the crash site, posted on Facebook.
There are really no words to describe, like, how devastating and -- yeah. I'm completely speechless Venus Williams
“My heartfelt condolences go out to the family and friends of Jerome Barson and I continue to keep them in my thoughts and prayers.”
Williams is being sued by the estate of an elderly Florida man who died last month after his vehicle was hit by a car driven by the American.
Despite the personal turmoil, Williams still opted to play at Wimbledon and, seeded 10th for The Championships, was first up on No 1 Court against the wily young Belgian Elise Mertens, making her first appearance in the Wimbledon main draw.
Mertens, who is ranked 54, is 21 years-old and was just one when Venus made her Wimbledon debut in 1997.
The seven-time Grand Slam title holder looked nervous from the outset and found herself severely tested, only taking the first set after a 52-minute battle in the tiebreak, 9-7.
Venus had got the early break, allowing her to pull away to a 3-0 lead, but some lax returning allowed the Belgian to break back to level with a firm hold of serve.
Both players delivered some formidable service games to take them into the breaker in which Mertens held her nerve and saved two set points on her serve with some intense rallying before an errant netted forehand on the fifth set point handed the set to the American.
The second was a way more comfortable affair as Venus, who got the decisive break, weathered a brief Mertens fightback in saving two match points on her own serve.
A brief rain delay briefly interrupted the 37-year-old’s momentum, but she kept her focus to ease herself into her 20th Wimbledon campaign, 7-6(7) 6-4, on their return to No 1 Court.
As if Williams didn’t have enough to contend with, she could well run into more trouble with the All-England Club’s all-white rule, which states only white clothing, including underwear, can be worn at The Championships.
The clothing police apparently missed Williams’ flouting the rule by wearing a pink bra under her white dress and she could now be warned, or even fined, by Wimbledon organisers.
It didn’t take long for eagle-eyed Twitter users, however, to notice, with one writing: “Isn’t that illegal in Wimbledon land??? Venus has got a pink bra on!!”
Another said: “Wimbledon will be all over Venus for that #pinkbra.”
When asked about it in her post-match press conference, Venus replied: “What pink bra? I don’t like talking about bras in press conferences. It’s weird.”
Asked if she had been asked to change the offending garment, she said: “ Yes, so I don’t want to talk about undergarments. It’s kind of awkward for me. I’ll leave that to you. You can talk about it with your friends. I’m going to pass.”
It could all add to the already stressful build-up to her tournament after police last week blamed Venus’ driving for the fatal motoring accident in Florida that led to the death of the 78-year-old man.
Responding to questions as to how she was dealing with the Florida situation, Venus neatly side-stepped directly addressing the issue until one journalist asked: “I saw that you wrote on your Facebook some very heartfelt words about the accident. Anything else you would want to say about that?”
“There are really no words to describe, like, how devastating and — yeah. I’m completely speechless,” Venus said.
“It’s just — yeah, I mean, I’m just… (tearing up.) devastating news,”
The moderator then stepped in, saying: “Before we take any further questions for Venus, please be aware she’s unable to say anything more about this, so I’d ask you to respect her wishes, please. Can we just give her a minute, please.”
After almost two minutes of silence, the distraught Venus was led out of the interview room by the All England Club official in floods of tears.
The Florida crash remains in the news and under investigation.
A Palm Beach Gardens police spokesman, Major Paul Rogers, said last week that one report has concluded that Williams was at fault for “violating the right of way’’ of the other vehicle.
The accident happened as Williams’ car was crossing an intersection around 1pm at around 5 miles per hour, when another car ran into it, the report said.
That car was being driven by Linda Barson, 67. and her passenger husband, Jerome Barson, 78, was injured and put in intensive care to be treated for a fractured spine and numerous internal injuries, but he died two weeks later.
Witnesses told investigators that Williams ran a red light in her Toyota SUV just as Barson’s car, a 2016 Hyundai Accent, entered the intersection on a green light, but Williams’ lawyer noted that she had not been cited or charged.
The lawyer added that Williams expressed her “deepest condolences” but that it was an “unfortunate accident”.
Venus herself was physically unharmed and it was subsequently found that no alcohol, drugs, or electronics such as a mobile phone, are suspected to be factors in the crash.
In the meantime, the Barsons’ daughter, Audrey Gassner-Dunayer, has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Williams.
According to The New York Times, the lawsuit describes extensive damage to both vehicles, saying: “The front end of the Hyundai Accent was crushed, the front windshield shattered, the airbags deployed, there was crush damage to the rear on the driver’s side, and the back window was shattered … The Defendant’s Toyota Sequoia was also severely damaged.”
It also explains in graphic detail the Barsons’ injuries.
On Friday evening, Williams broke her silence regarding the accident with her statement on Facebook.
On Monday afternoon, the World No 11 focused sufficiently to put the horror crash to one side, at least for a while, as she advanced to the second round, where she will face China’s Wang Qiang.