LONDON, UK - Eagle-eyed followers of Venus Williams will have been quick to notice that the five-time Wimbledon champion is doing a few things differently in her astonishing 23rd year on the circuit.
The clues have been there as far back as Miami in March, where - despite visibly struggling physically at times - Williams smiled and laughed her way all the way to the fourth round. Everything that happened on court, from Hawkeye challenges to opponent Daria Kasatkina's trademark tweener, seemed to elicit a wry chuckle from the former World No.1.
"I never smile on the court," she admitted after defeating the Russian. "This week I've smiled a lot. I think there's just a lot to smile for. That's all I can say!"
Since Roland Garros, Williams has been switching up her routine even more. For two decades, her preparations for Wimbledon have been as regular as clockwork: a post-Paris return to the US to recharge her batteries at home, eschewing any grass warm-ups and preferring to trust in her formidable ability to play herself into form at SW19. Only in 2011 - when Williams was coming off a five-month layoff due to a hip injury sustained at the Australian Open - did she opt to enter Eastbourne to gain some matchplay.
This year, though, Williams has been happy to stay in Europe. "I've been overseas for four weeks now," she posted on Instagram. "Normally I would be itching to go home, but I'm in a peaceful place." The 49-time WTA titlist was still in the same peaceful place at the Nature Valley Classic in Birmingham, where - accompanied by faithful longtime canine companion Harry - she reached the quarterfinals last week in just the fourth non-Wimbledon grass tournament of her career. In addition, Williams partnered 22-year-old Briton Harriet Dart in doubles at the tournament's suggestion - only her fourth doubles partner not named Serena in a WTA-level event (following Chanda Rubin at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Caroline Wozniacki at Doha 2008 and Madison Keys at Rome 2018).
"We had a blast," enthused Williams after the scratch pairing's thrilling evening loss to Nadiia Kichenok and Abigail Spears. "It was a lot of fun. I wish we could have had a little more time to get used to playing with each other - with Serena's permission maybe we will play together again!"
Indeed, the whole tournament was marked by smiles and laughter for the 39-year-old, who received a rapturous welcome from the crowd and responded in kind. "This is very new for me and very exciting," she said. "It's not often I get to play in a new city in front of a new crowd, so this is pretty exhilarating actually... Since I have been here, I've seen a ton of young people here really into the game. This sport has given so much to me and I like seeing young people having that opportunity to be able to grow from tennis."
Confirming that she was still in the same "peaceful place" that she had referred to in Paris, Williams acknowledged that 2019 has been a departure for her in many ways. "Yeah, I really usually can't wait to get home and I just want to get off the road," she admitted. "I have never played as much as my contemporaries.
"But I'm just excited to be on tour and enjoying every moment. It feels like an adventure. Next year I'll do the same thing. Maybe I'll start even earlier. Stay a little longer. Who knows? We'll see."