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LEADING WITH LOVE: AT 39, VENUS WILLIAMS STILL COMMANDS RESPECT
After first-round losses at Roland Garros (to ninth-seeded Elina Svitolina) and Wimbledon (to 15-year-old Cori Gauff), Venus will look for a turnaround in Flushing Meadows, and an improvement on last year’s third-round finish—a loss to her sister Serena.
By Matt Fitzgerald
August 23, 2019
The stage is now hers to take. Except today, in place of a bursting Centre Court full of cheers and claps, is a room of about 15 serious, steady faces. Most of these formidable figures are unlike her on the outside: they are white, they are older, and they are male.
She paints the only mutual canvas they know, instructing each person to close their eyes and imagine
being nine again. She tells them a tale: a little girl dreams of playing in the Wimbledon ladies’ final. She makes this pursuit her only priority, but one day discovers her persistent work to become a Grand Slam champion is not valued equally to the boys training on the next court over. She ponders this message being sent to every girl chasing their ambitions, in tennis and all walks of life, and why those in today’s room agree with that imbalanced notion.
A profound connection is made. Finished visualizing, reality promptly stands tall in front. Venus Williams has preached her wisdom and shared her story, but now must focus over the next 24 hours to make her desire of winning a third Wimbledon singles title come true. The usually immovable members are touched. As the quiet leader exits, the impact she leaves behind is deafening.
For more than 20 years, Williams has been, and remains, a fundamental fixture in the WTA, with her racquet and point of view. She’s not the most outspoken player; she keeps to herself; she is “protective,” according to younger sister Serena; she likes to laugh; she’s glowingly graceful and reverently respected. But when Williams has an opinion, her words carry the weight of her shots.
When she believes in a cause, her passion controls the baseline for change. A frequently elected member of the WTA players’ council, a voluntary position Williams still serves today, it’s no surprise that two years after her inspiring speech to the Grand Slam Committee on that Friday in 2005, Wimbledon made the decision to offer equal prize money. Roland Garros wasn’t far behind in joining its three major counterparts.
“Most players never put themselves on the line for anything other than their forehand or backhand. That can’t be said for Venus,” Billie Jean King says. “She is a quiet leader.”
“Venus is the kind of person you don’t think is listening—and two months later, she brings up what you were saying. And you go, ‘Oh my goodness, she wasn’t just listening, she was really listening.’ She likes to go away and process before having a conversation. Her brain is always going. People misinterpret that as being disassociated. That’s not true. She’s very observant and absolutely loves her sport.”
Her trophy case exhibits one side of that love: five Wimbledon titles, two US Open titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, a Fed Cup and five Olympic medals—four of them gold. Williams has played on every bucket-list tennis court, been ranked No. 1 in singles and doubles, connected globally with her adoring fans, and defeated some of her sport’s greatest players—Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Justine Henin and Serena, to name just a few.
In a career that took off at the 1997 US Open—where Williams became the first unseeded player in the Open era to reach a major final—the ecstasy of competing has kept her in the gym, running through drill after drill and beating the odds against Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain (Williams publicly shared her diagnosis after withdrawing from the 2011 US Open).
Serena and Venus met in the 2001 and 2002 US Open finals, with Venus winning the latter contest, 6-2, 6-4. (Getty Images)
Says Lindsay Davenport, who was edged out by Williams, 4–6, 7–6 (4), 9–7, in an extraordinary 2005 Wimbledon final, and finished with a 14–13 edge in their head-to-head series:
“The only way you can be a high-level athlete [at 39] is if you love it, and if you have that drive to want to keep improving and still be on the big stage. She’s always had that. She’s always had a love for the game. That’s often what pushes athletes out: you realize you don’t have it in you to give 100 percent. We’re so fortunate that has not been the case with Venus.”
When a new generation emerges, experienced players must adapt to evolving competitors who are often quicker, stronger and feistier. Prominent champions are trailed by these voracious hunters looking for conquests to pad their resumes. Williams often finds herself battling athletes who have exhausted substantially fewer miles, but her tires continue to hold their tread, thanks to a sharper perception on when to hit the gas, and when to conserve her fuel.
“Venus has a better understanding of the game, so she’s more tactical than she used to be,” says Martina Navratilova. “She also knows the big moments—those big points when she needs to button up and not miss.
“She always makes the other player hit another shot. She’s tamed her game. The points last longer because she picks her spots better. I think she’s cut out silly mistakes and really learned her lessons on how to play percentages better.”
Davenport subscribes to Navratilova’s assessment, adding, “I feel like she’s a much smarter player. Much more mature. She’s obviously not as fast as she once was, as athleticism is different every decade that you age. But she’s improved her forehand, as well as her court awareness.
“Most players are not able to play into their late 30s, so you don’t see that side of them. We are in this generation, with Roger Federer, Serena and Venus. There’s no question Venus is a better tennis player than she was earlier in her career.”
When Williams’ ranking began to slide in 2011, many began to count out the veteran. But in 2015 she re-entered the Top 10 for the first time in nearly five years; a year later, she reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. (Getty Images)
At 39, it’s remarkable to watch Williams carry on competing, and winning, in the top echelon of her sport. Through May 2019, the Compton, CA-raised and Palm Beach Gardens, FL resident has beaten the likes of Petra Kvitova, Daria Kasatkina, Elise Mertens and Victoria Azarenka. And as she’s shown from Day 1, Williams has done it by letting her game do the talking. There are no racquet smashes, or quarrels with spectators, or inquiries of gamesmanship from opponents. Her advocacy for fair play is a quality that goes hand in hand with her reserved, judicious manner of living.
“You could probably count on one hand how many times she’s exchanged words with an umpire,” Davenport says. “She’s always so fair, quiet and accepting a lot of times of stuff that’s happening on court. You know when Venus argues a call, she feels strongly about it. She has been an exemplary role model for her entire career with her on-court behavior.”
It’s no secret that the primary objective on court for Williams is to factor into the conversation at major tournaments. With 128 players vying for one piece of Grand Slam hardware, fields are that much deeper. Everybody shows up with an intent to win at any cost. Many may feel the road to lifting a major trophy is more difficult than at a weekly tour event, but King, who reached the 1983 Wimbledon semifinals when she was 39, believes a tournament such as the US Open swings in favor of an older player like Williams.
“You have more time off. You get rest every other day, especially if you don’t play doubles. The main difference is all the top talent comes together for one event. As you get older, you have to believe you can still do it. That’s the most important thing.
“Look at Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open,” King continues. “He played his heart out thinking he had a chance. The mindset must be that your 90 percent is still good enough to win if I stay focused and play at my best, and I believe I will be going to the net shaking hands winning. It’s tougher today because the talent pool is deeper. You have to stay in the now like crazy. Venus can do that.”
The American star did even better in 2017, reaching two Grand Slam finals as well as the season-ending championships, and finishing the season at No. 5. (Getty Images)
For Davenport, Williams’ prospects come down to her former rival’s body holding up. Will Williams enter with any physical limitations? Does her footwork appear sprightly in practice? Is she able to locate her targets on serve? The answer to those questions will influence her chances in New York.
“She’s battled knee, elbow and arm injuries this year. It’s affected two of her biggest attributes: her serve and movement. Those have been missing,” Davenport says. “I would love to see her play as close to 100 percent physically as possible. That hasn’t been the case for her. She needs that. She has the crowd support behind her in New York and the right attitude. She just has to be healthy.”
It was only two years ago when Williams found herself two points away from defeating eventual champion Sloane Stephens, 13 years her junior, in the US Open semifinals. The trailblazer has proven before that age is just another numerical measurement in her biography. Though stiff opposition lies ahead for Williams, the quiet leader should be resoundingly ready to reach for her New York dream.
“When Venus gets on the court, she’s a lion,” Navratilova says. “If she’s rested, she can beat anybody.”
Last edited by Grossefavourite on Aug Thu 22, 2019 9:53 am, edited 1 time in total.
Did Venus Williams Ever Get Her Due?
How the first Williams sister changed the course of women’s tennis.
By Elizabeth Weil
Aug. 22, 2019, 5:00 a.m. ET
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/maga ... ennis.html
Venus is hitting the ball, still, after all these years. Venus, the dutiful Williams daughter, who actually followed the 78-page playbook her father wrote even before she was born to make her a tennis champion. Venus, who in following that playbook delivered on the dreams of the old man now sitting courtside on a bench watching her practice in the syrup-thick West Palm Beach morning.
Serena is doing whatever it is that Serena does in addition to her training — attending the royal wedding or dancing in a Beyoncé video or organizing the Met ball. Venus’s mother, Oracene, divorced Richard Williams in 2002. Richard’s latest wife, Lakeisha, is gone as well. Richard, white-bearded and diminished by age, reportedly had a stroke, and in its wake he and Lakeisha have been dragging each other through a messy divorce. But Venus is here. Venus is loyal. Richard and Serena will tell you Venus is the most loyal person in the world. “There’s your average loyalty,” Serena told me. Then there’s Venus loyalty, which “for lack of a better word is mind-boggling.”
Earlier that September morning, before Venus’s alarm rang, Richard called and woke her up. Richard likes to do this, and Venus lets him. She’s secure and generous that way. Venus’s schedule for a normal day is: “I get up, I go practice, I go to the gym. I go to the office normally. I visit my dad. I get home at 8 or 9.” If the sun is too hot, Venus avoids doing drills that spray balls all over the practice court. Richard likes to come and pick them up. Venus doesn’t want him to scurry around and get heatstroke.
“There you go, V.,” Richard said from the bench. “There you go. More wrist, less arm.”
A few minutes later: “There you go, V. Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it.”
That day, both Williamses were dressed in the same palette: Venus in black leggings, white top; Richard in fresh white sneakers, fresh white socks, black shorts and black polo. After Richard paid Venus a third compliment, Venus turned to her father and said, “Thank you, Daddy.”
Richard said, “You’re welcome, baby.”
The exchange was so tender, so easy and full of love, that if my daughter, when she is 39, speaks this way to me it will burst my heart.
Venus, age 10, with her father, Richard, in 1990.CreditKen Levine/Allsport/Getty Images
Between drills, as Venus’s young, male hitting partner jumped rope, Venus sat and wiped her brow on her pink-and-yellow Wimbledon towel. Venus’s body, not in motion, looks strong but languid, weary even, the Statue of Liberty with her arm down to take a rest — right up until 0.1 seconds before she hits the ball, at which point she explodes. At 6 foot 1, with limbs that span time zones, she has self-containment that’s unexpected and beguiling, a stillness that seems to emerge not only from her muscles but also from a calm, unruffled space inside, a clarity about who she is. “I’m tall. I’m black. Everything’s different about me. Just face the facts,” Venus said to reporters at age 17 when, in 1997, preternaturally self-possessed, she would become the first unseeded women’s player in the Open Era to reach the finals of the U.S. Open.
Three years later, in 2000, when Venus first won the U.S. Open, President Clinton called to congratulate her. “So what happened?” she asked the president, who had been at the stadium but left before her match started. “Where’d you go?” Venus went on to press Clinton as to why he, in his motorcade, was allowed to zip through the gridlock between Queens and Manhattan while she had to sit in traffic. That Clinton was widely considered the most powerful person in the world didn’t matter. She did not believe the president was superior to her.
Every piece of Williams arcana has been studied, repeatedly, to decode how this happened: how these sisters from Compton, Calif., became two of the greatest tennis players of all time and transformed not just the game but our understanding of what’s possible for women in sports, maybe even what’s possible period. It’s easy to stand in the present and get distracted, even a little blinded, by the klieg light of Serena. She’s flashy; she’s extroverted. Her talent is so singular that it feels as if it dropped whole from the heavens, a dense, crystalline meteorite of athletic prowess and drive. Venus, a year older, seems more earthly and understated. If you’re not deliberately looking through Serena’s glare — if you don’t hold up a prism and refract Serena’s achievement into its constituent parts — you’ll lose sight of what a star Venus is.
Venus is at peace with this. She has been ranked No. 1 in the world. She has won seven Grand Slam tournaments, including five Wimbledon championships. She projects Thich Nhat Hanh-levels of equanimity. Venus is not aggrieved. When, on that humid day, I asked Richard, who is 77, what he saw when he looked at Venus, he said, “She’s perfect.”
As Richard knows well, and Venus, too, the girls were always a two-stage rocket: Venus igniting first, blasting herself up through the worst of the gravity and the grittiest friction, then separating and falling away as Serena lit up and shot into orbit alone.
Venus is ranked 52nd in the world. This year, so far, she has lost in the first round at the French Open, Wimbledon, the Rogers Cup and San Jose; the third round at the Australian and Italian Opens and at Britain’s Birmingham tournament; the fourth round at the Miami Open; and the quarterfinals at the Auckland Open, Indian Wells and the Cincinnati Masters. Some days she brings her serving arm up and over her head like a black belt about to chop a plank of wood with her bare hand and hits an ace. Other times she seems to lean back and take a micronap before she completes her swing.
A totally reasonable question is: Why does Venus keep competing? Not counting Serena, Venus is more than four years older than any other woman ranked in the Top 100. She last won a Grand Slam tournament 11 years ago. The oldest woman ever to win a Grand Slam tournament was Serena, in 2017, at age 35. Venus also lives with Sjogren’s syndrome, the energy-sapping autoimmune disorder that was diagnosed in 2011. The illness causes fatigue and joint pain and requires Venus to stick (mostly) to a raw, vegan diet.
Yet Venus was never just a player. Her job was never simply to swing a racket and win sets, though that was required. Her job was to change the game. “God blessed me with Oracene to be able to bring Venus down,” Richard said in his mad-genius (but often prophetic) way in a segment on the “Oprah” show in 2002. “She came down and saved tennis!” Tennis, Richard felt, was “very boring,” stuck in a staid, snobby, moribund past. “Tennis is so far back in the Dark Ages, it’s disgraceful,” he said. “It’s the only sport that you can play” in which people say: “ ‘Shhhhh shhhhh be quiet, be quiet.’ Who wants to come to something you got to sit there like you’re a baby and be quiet?” he said on the show. “Let’s stomp some feet and get this tennis thing going to BOOMING! If not, Venus and Serena gonna be gone and your game gonna be dead.”
Tennis had never seen such a tall woman with such an epic wingspan move with such speed and grace. Tennis had never seen a skinny limby black girl who, by her own estimation, looked like “a baby giraffe,” so proud of her own dark skin that she wore a backless dress. Tennis had never seen a female player from a neighborhood like Compton — “Let me tell you something: There was nothing remotely un-hood about it,” is how Isha Price, the middle of Oracene’s three daughters from her first marriage, once described the place — confident enough to stand up and say in public, I will be the greatest, and then back that bravado up on the court.
Venus brought to tennis her 129-m.p.h. serve and a brick-wall volley game. But more important, as Courtney Nguyen, a senior writer for W.T.A. Insider, the news department of the Women’s Tennis Association, told me: “Venus brought, not trash talk, but the idea that if you don’t believe in yourself, no one is going to believe in you. She brought not apologizing for being good, not apologizing for what you want. ‘I’m here to win it. I’m not here to make friends.’ ” This is not to say Venus was impolite — she had to be polite. Every time she won, she waved to fans and twirled before leaving the court, among the sweetest, least threatening exits imaginable.
It seems inevitable now, but it was not. Venus, out front, alone, was followed by Serena, and behind her Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff. Venus was the lead rider breaking the headwinds in the peloton, the rabbit pulling the runners behind her to world-record pace. Venus allowed young women, “African-American women especially, to feel there’s a pathway for them to the top of the tennis world,” Pam Shriver, who won 22 Grand Slam doubles titles between 1981 and 1991, told me.
You could hear direct echoes of Venus in female athletes all year long. In Megan Rapinoe, the soccer star who was so sure that she was going to win the World Cup that she turned down an invitation to celebrate at the White House before the final game. In Naomi Osaka, who just before the start of the French Open said, “I always thought I would be No. 1 and win a Grand Slam when I was 18.” In Coco Gauff, who at age 15 refused to bow her head and tell reporters that she’d met her goal once she’d beaten her idol, Venus. Because, as a true Venus protégée, she had not. “I said this before: I want to be the greatest,” Gauff told reporters after her victory in the first round at Wimbledon. “My dad told me that I could do this when I was 8.”
This is the current story of women in sports. But Venus was first.
Last September Venus walked into a Mexican restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla., set her little Havanese dog, Harry, in a bag at her feet and told me a story. As is true for many pets, Harry is a surrogate and a way to discuss things — sometimes intentionally but often not — that Venus doesn’t want to say, which for her is a lot. She has spent 30 years in the public eye trying to maintain her privacy, and at this point her courteous-but-nonresponsive Q. and A. jujitsu is top-notch. The International Tennis Federation expects each player to sit for a news conference after each Grand Slam match. These days, in response to a reporter’s multipart question about, say, a younger woman she has just played and how that opponent makes Venus feel now that Venus must obviously be at the end of her career, Venus will typically utter something along the lines of “I’ve never thought about that,” and then let the awkward silence hang in the air as the room sorts out who was just rude to whom. Still, as Venus told me in the Mexican restaurant (while avoiding the guacamole that fits her anti-inflammation diet but that, texture-wise, freaks her out), one day, 11 years ago, she saw a puppy with funny curly hair in the window of a pet store. She thought the dog was adorable, so she called Serena. Serena, not the equanimity expert in the family, said: “Get him! I love him already!”
“So if you’re in a pet shop, do not call her,” Venus said, her arms and legs ribboning out like plains-state freeways from her shorts and tank top. “You need adult supervision, and she’s not an adult.” Yet Harry, more than a decade later, has worked out great. “I think Harry mirrors me well,” Venus said. “He’s chill. Then he gets excited. He stands up for what he believes in.” Less simpatico to Venus, however, is Harry’s habit of walking into Serena’s house and eating all of Serena’s dog Chip’s food, and then standing over the empty bowl waiting to fight Chip or Serena’s other dog, Laura, if one of them comes near.
“Serena has grown to love it,” Venus said, referring to Harry’s bullying. “I don’t know why she likes it!”
Even a casual reader of the Williams family oeuvre may know that Serena, as a preteen, happily took Venus’s lunch money if she forgot her own and did not want to eat one of the free jelly sandwiches offered at school. “It’s almost embarrassing when you’re at that age,” Serena told me. “Ugggghhh, you have to eat the sandwich in the bag.” But Venus always had a far sturdier internal bulwark against the judgment of others. “She never really cared about people’s opinions,” Serena said. Serena also took Venus’s first-place trophy if Serena came in second, saying she just preferred the color gold. She sneaked extra hotels onto her properties when playing Monopoly. If their three older half sisters complained, Venus — reflexively, almost professionally, protective, like the Secret Service — told them Serena didn’t understand the rules.
A more thorough student of Williamsiana may also remember the orange episode, which Serena describes in the first of her two memoirs, “On the Line” (2009). (Venus has published zero memoirs, only a business book in 2010, called “Come to Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors, and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession,” which features others’ voices far more than her own.) In the orange episode, Serena is 8 or 9. One day a friend of Richard’s brings a big bag of oranges to the practice court. He leaves them in the shopping cart Richard used to store tennis balls. At the end of practice, when the girls are supposed to be working on their serves, Serena opens the bag, hits a couple of oranges over the fence and then smashes the fruit into a sticky, oozy, fleshy pulp. “I was like a wild child,” Serena writes, with the help of her co-writer, Daniel Paisner. “I unleashed on these defenseless oranges. I didn’t think about it. I just went a little crazy.” Looking back on this scene, Serena sees an impetuous jerk, but she also sees greatness. “You need a wild streak if you hope to be a serious competitor. You need a kind of irrational killer instinct. You need to put it out there that you’re reckless and unpredictable — not just so your opponents take note, but so that you notice, too.”
It was a transformative moment, “really the first glimpse I had of the passion I’d soon develop on the court,” Serena writes. “The passion I’d need to develop if I meant to grow my game.”
Venus, an introvert and internalizer, is a knight by nature, not a gladiator. She was never an impetuous jerk.
Besides the Williams family’s own primary texts, an incredible amount has been written over the past 25 years about Venus and Serena, and in that deluge of prose it has been easy to lose sight of how radical Richard Williams’s original vision was. There had been black American tennis champions before, the first among them Althea Gibson, the daughter of sharecroppers who was denied entry into tennis clubs because of the color of her skin, even into a hotel hosting a luncheon in her own honor. She won both Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958, but at that time she came to feel overwhelmed by the idea that, in addition to playing, she was supposed to address racism directly. “I tried to feel responsibilities to Negroes, but that was a burden on my shoulders,” she said. “Now I’m playing tennis to please me, not them.” The next two major black American tennis champions, Arthur Ashe and Zina Garrison, likewise kept their focus primarily on the 78-foot-long court.
But for Richard Williams, tennis was always political, always a vehicle for change. The epigraph of his 2014 memoir, “Black and White: The Way I See It,” comes from the 1926 Langston Hughes poem “I, Too.”
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Richard grew up poor in Louisiana in the 1940s, the oldest of five children. To help feed his family, he writes, “I used to go out in the woods and hunt bullfrogs to eat, and fish, and shoot rabbits, and steal chickens.” He also writes that his best friend was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. After high school, he bounced around between Chicago and Shreveport. Then he moved to California, where he hustled odd jobs and started a security firm, because, he writes, “it was a natural for someone who knew as much about stealing as I did.” Then in 1978, he saw the Romanian tennis player Virginia Ruzici on TV receive $20,000 (Richard remembered this as $40,000) for winning the final of the French Open, and he decided not just to learn to play the game so that his daughters, who had not yet been born, could become rich but to learn to play the game so those daughters could expose the idea that if you think you’re the best in the world but that world is built on privilege and exclusion, you are lying to yourself.
Richard watched tennis videos. He look lessons from a man nicknamed Old Whiskey. He moved his family from Long Beach, Calif., to Compton so that, in addition to mastering ground strokes, etc., the girls could hone their mental game; he wanted them to learn to handle the stress and adversity that came from practicing in gang territory because they’d have to deal with the even worse stress and adversity when playing in front of white people.
Venus, born on June 17, 1980, 15 months before Serena, was taller, stronger and more tactical, and was thrust into the public eye first. She was profiled in this newspaper at age 10. She quit the junior circuit at age 12 after winning all 63 of the 63 matches she played. She turned pro at age 14. Serena clung to the hem of Venus’s tennis shorts in every conceivable way. “If she laughed, you laughed louder,” Oprah Winfrey said to Serena with a hint of sternness when the sisters appeared on her show in 2002. “If she cried, you cried harder. If she ordered food, you would order the same thing.”
Serena, 21, nodded and admitted that “only maybe two years ago” she stopped being Venus.
Oprah said, “You woke up at, what, 18 or 19 and said — ”
“I said: ‘I’m not Venus. I’m Serena!’ ”
Isha Price told me it is “absolutely more clear in hindsight” what a huge burden it was for Venus to be the first body on the baseline for Richard’s larger-than-tennis operation, the first Williams holding a racket on center court. But while it was happening, nobody in the family talked about the pressure. They were just living their lives. All parents circumscribe a world for their children. Richard and Oracene strictly defined theirs. “If they told us something, there was no other,” Isha said. “You don’t really have any friends. O.K. I believe that. The only people you have are your family. If people don’t know you, they’re not going to do anything to protect you, but you guys can protect each other. We really kind of had to be ride or die for one another, because as far as we were concerned there was no one else.”
Richard was there with Venus all the way. Yet in those first professional years, Venus was also alone. Isha remembers watching Venus’s matches on TV in college, and she’d see, even in U.S. tournaments, everyone rooting for a player “from Europe somewhere,” not for her sister. Venus also had to handle being treated as an interloper by the other players. “Only she knows what was going on in some of those early locker rooms, but it couldn’t have been easy,” Isha said. In 1997, in the U.S. Open semifinal, the Romanian Irina Spirlea shoulder-checked Venus during a changeover. “She thinks she’s the [expletive] Venus Williams,” Spirlea said, explaining her behavior in the aftermath, though not in the way she intended to.
Richard, when asked about the incident the next day on the phone by a reporter, called Spirlea “a big, tall, white turkey.”
Richard pushed cultural buttons like a kid in an elevator. He was not afraid to say to Venus, in earshot of all, “Meet the white lady.” Sitting down with a white Sports Illustrated reporter in 1994, he said: “Don’t be intimidated. We won’t hurt you.” He claimed when his daughters reached the Wimbledon finals that he was going to invite the Crips to the All England Club to watch his girls’ matches with the queen.
In 1999, in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, a strand of beads fell out of Venus’s hair as she served on what would be a break point in the second set against Lindsay Davenport (the sisters’ most formidable opponent for many years). By that time Venus, at 18, was already a Top 10 player. She had gone 17-4 in Grand Slam tournament play in the previous year. She hadn’t won a final. She did not yet quite have consistent control of her powers, but she was getting close. When those beads fell out, the chair umpire penalized Venus a point for distraction, giving Davenport a 3-0 lead. Venus looked up at him, furious, belittled, exhausted, her teenage voice cracking as she argued her case to the white-button-down-shirted referee who’d emerged to support the umpire’s call.
“I am not causing a disturbance here!” Venus said, plaintive, keeping her anger in check. “No one is disturbed!” She was right: Nobody was disturbed on that point. But tennis was disturbed. Venus, back on the court, summoned the strength to contain her fury. It took a toll; she lost the set, 0-6.
Serena was coming up by then. She won the 1999 U.S. Open. Among the cognoscenti it was already clear that Serena would become a better player than Venus, as Richard always promised she would. But Serena was entering a significantly different world from the one Venus entered, if for only one reason: She was entering a world with Venus already in it. Venus did almost all the talking in their joint interviews, introversion be damned. She was the one who had to explain that she and Serena didn’t smile more because they didn’t want to smile more. She was the one who had to explain that they stuck together because they didn’t like to hang out with people they didn’t trust. (Richard had a more aggressive response to this last question: “I hear a lot of people say that my girls weren’t very social. Let me ask you: Do you see Bill Gates out there socializing with a ball?”)
In 2000 Venus and Serena played each other in a Wimbledon semifinal. At that point they’d competed against each other in four major tournaments. Venus had won three matches, but Serena had won their most recent one. The night before, the sisters shared a bedroom as they had all their lives. The semifinal the next day was intense and strange, almost too intimate to watch, filled with power, grunts, operatic points and dozens of unforced errors. Both Williams, at times, seemed to avert their eyes. They knew each other’s weaknesses as well as they knew their own. They wanted to exploit those vulnerabilities to win, but at the same time they did not want those vulnerabilities exposed for consumption and entertainment to the world.
The match ended with Serena double-faulting on match point. After Venus won 6-2, 7-6 (3), she walked off the court with Serena, who was on the verge of tears. “Let’s get out of here,” Venus said. At the news conference later, Venus was still focused on Serena’s pain. “Serena is a real competitor, probably even more than what I am,” Venus said. “So that really hurts deep.”
Thus began Venus’s prime. Two days after that Wimbledon victory over Serena, Venus won her first Grand Slam championship, defeating Davenport. She won her second Grand Slam two months later at the U.S. Open, again defeating Davenport. That year Venus also won two Olympic gold medals — women’s singles and women’s doubles (with Serena). She scored a $40 million endorsement deal with Reebok, the largest a female athlete had ever signed.
The following year, 2001, Venus again won Wimbledon, beating Justine Henin. She played Serena in the finals of the U.S. Open. That match was another internecine war. It felt intrusive, nearly transgressive, to watch. But who could look away? One of Venus’s serves blew the racket out of Serena’s hand. Venus won, 6-2, 6-4. At the net, at the end, Venus said to Serena: “I love you. I feel so bad. I feel like I haven’t won.” But Serena knew she would not return her sister’s fealty, and at the trophy ceremony, before the cameras and the crowd, Serena put Venus and the world on notice.
“She always goes extra, sometimes too much, worrying about Serena,” Serena said of her sister. “But she’s got to realize: I didn’t win this time. Enjoy it, because it might be my time next time.”
Four hours after she finished her muggy Florida practice, Venus arrived at her office. (She’d driven home to take a shower and fallen asleep.) Tennis was always a family obligation, deep at the heart of the world laid out by Richard and Oracene. The world also included Richard’s driving the girls around in the maroon-and-white family VW van, schooling them on the merits of buying foreclosed houses and the necessity of becoming not just athletes but entrepreneurs — all part of the plan to win not just on the court but in all of American life. He had a deep, intuitive understanding of the American dream and an ability to see that dream for what it was truly about: money, status, winning. Still, V Starr Interiors, the interior-design company that Venus started in 2002, and EleVen, the active-wear label that followed in 2007, were never for Richard, or Serena, or anyone else. They were for Venus (one of whose middle names is Starr) and Venus alone, and as such, she loves them more than you might expect for a woman who has been extraordinarily successful doing something else.
“They always stay babies, businesses,” Venus told me. “Even when they’re big, they’re still a baby and they need so much.” Venus has been known to take work calls at tournaments shortly before she plays. “If the need is there, I will do what it takes. You can’t just leave your baby alone. I’m a good mama.”
V Starr specializes in hotels, condo developments and athletic clubs and serves primarily corporate clients (plus Serena). EleVen makes active wear — largely tennis clothes, though it has recently branched into streetwear. (Venus did not answer questions about the companies’ finances.) The two small companies, with about 25 employees combined, share space in one of Florida’s zillion minimall-like office parks. The setup inside is profoundly generic, just groups of tables pushed together with computers on them, which had the effect of making Venus, when she arrives, appear all the more resplendent in her black dress with metallic green cuffs, gold accent headband like a crown. All athletes are beautiful, but with Venus the beauty stems not only from the contours of her face and body but also from her carriage. She has a poise that, paired with her long neck, makes her seem regal, almost mythically so, like the bust of Queen Nefertiti. The effect is diminished only somewhat when she carries Harry around like an infant in the crook of her arm.
The businesses are very, definitely, vehemently not just a retirement plan as Venus is very, definitely, vehemently not talking about retirement. She still loves the game. Why should she quit? Billie Jean King, who played into her 40s, told me she wished she’d played longer. “You should have a fulfilling career,” King said. “You should go up the mountain and down the mountain all the way, just like you do in real life. You don’t have to go out at No. 1 if you don’t want to. I think that’s a mistake.” Venus’s only concession to talking about her age is acknowledging that “maybe I just stretch more.” So for now, in addition to training and playing in tournaments, her day-to-day includes being involved in most decisions at both V Starr and EleVen. The day I visited, she was approving a palette of materials for a midrange condo project. The sample tray included pink corduroy; brown leather; blue, tan and teal velvet; white and black marble.
In a windowless conference room filled with EleVen samples, a safe distance from the office candy bowl (which Venus insists stays full, though her sweet tooth tortures her), Harry sat in a chair at the table as Sonya Haffey, vice president of V Starr, ran through the status of various clients.
“He’s not responding to me,” Haffey said, running down the list. “I was going to see if you could work your magic with him.
“He said he met you. You were in a Range Rover. He even said what you ate, which was very disturbing.”
V Starr does not want to work with people primarily interested in Venus’s celebrity, though it’s just true that if Venus calls a client the firm is courting, the client is far more likely to call back. With EleVen, Venus’s stardom is an explicit part of the brand. The company’s identity is built around excellence — 10 is a number, EleVen is a lifestyle, or so the tagline goes — with Venus herself representing that goal. She always wears EleVen apparel when she competes.
That afternoon Venus also took a call on speakerphone from a producer in New York to kick around yet another off-court opportunity: a reality-TV show. The producer offered a few concepts that interested Venus not at all. Venus then presented her own, tentatively titled Designing Doubles. The idea was Venus and Serena would go around together, fixing up places like women’s shelters and schools.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole us,” Venus explained. So instead of a show focused on sports, the Williams sisters would spend time in the community, working to make spaces better for those in need. They’d do the redecorating themselves, right down to sewing curtains. Oracene used to make the girls’ tennis skirts. “She taught me how to sew,” Venus said.
The producer on the line was enthusiastic. This put Venus at ease. “It’s a concept I’m a lot more comfortable with in terms of personality and being myself,” Venus said.
“I like it,” the producer said. “We love it. We’d love to have your sister.”
Venus told me another story: She and Serena were living in a 8,500-square-foot mansion they bought together in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Then one day Serena announced, “I found a place for us to live!”
Venus said, “O.K., great.” She checked out the lot. She thought it was fine. “Serena liked it or loved it, I guess,” Venus said. They put in a bid.
A few weeks later Serena called again and said, “Actually, I thought we’d get two lots, side by side.” Then she announced she wanted to move to another development.
At the time Venus was traveling in Asia. But lots were going fast, and she bought one. “I was like, I guess I better close,” she said. Venus hired an architect and got to what she called “75 percent construction documents.” Then Oracene wanted to buy a new place, so Venus took her mother to look for properties in nearby Jupiter. There Venus had an epiphany. “I said: ‘I always wanted to live here! This is where I planned on moving!’ ” Venus found a lot for herself in Jupiter. “Then Serena is like, I want to move there, too! And then she was upset because she didn’t find anything.”
A few months later — you guessed it — Serena called: “I know this sounds nuts. ...”
Venus said, “Please leave me alone.”
“I saw this lot.” Serena said. “I think you should look at it.”
“I was like: ‘This is ridiculous. I will never do that,’ ” Venus said. “Next thing I know I went to look at the lot and I thought, This is an amazing idea. I bought the lot. Then I got halfway along and I realized, Shoot, I really want to move to Jupiter. I sold that lot. It was just craziest thing. By that time I was just so tired. Then Serena yelled at me.”
Venus now has a house on Jupiter Island. Serena has a house in Palm Beach Gardens. Both sisters also have houses in New York and California, among other places, and once again, they own adjacent lots. V Starr is helping Serena design her new home. “Serena wants something supermodern this time,” Venus said. Venus wants her own to be “relaxed, pretty, understated. Not, Oh, my God, this house is so big.”
The sisters text constantly. For a while they had hitting partners who were brothers, and personal assistants who were brothers, too. (Naomi Osaka has since hired Venus’s hitting partner, Jermaine Jenkins, as her coach.) Venus said of Serena, “We have the most codependent relationship you’ve ever heard.”
Venus has never, and probably will never, cop to feeling any pain caused by sibling rivalry. But after Serena blasted off, Venus seemed wobbly and lost for a while. Who could blame her? Venus had been ranked No. 1 in the world for 11 weeks during the spring and summer of 2002. Then, in June 2002, Venus lost the French Open final to Serena. This was the first Williams-Williams Grand Slam final that Serena won. Then in July, at Wimbledon, Venus lost in the finals to Serena again. Serena proceeded to complete her so-called Serena Slam, by winning the U.S. and Australian Opens. Venus lost the No. 1 ranking. Serena held onto it for 57 weeks straight. Venus has never been ranked first again.
In the years that followed, Venus suffered abdominal injuries. She suffered wrist injuries. Her form fell apart. She often stepped onto the baseline as taped up as a book with a broken spine.
Venus did regain her footing at Wimbledon starting in 2005, both on the court and off. At that point, the U.S. and Australian Opens offered equal prize money to men and women; Wimbledon and the French Open did not. Larry Scott, then chairman and chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, wanted Venus, along with many of the other top women, to represent the female players in negotiations with Wimbledon leadership. Most athletes beg off chores involving tennis politics. “When a player starts to get involved,” King told me, “it takes away from her true focus: winning.” But Venus was never a regular player. She said yes. The day before she was scheduled to play in the 2005 Wimbledon final, she walked into the meeting at the All England Club and told the committee members to close their eyes — “no peeking!” she recalls saying. She asked the assembled to imagine being little girls who had worked all their lives to make it to a stage like Wimbledon. Then she asked them to imagine those little girls once they made it being told that Wimbledon valued boys more. How could a girl retain full belief in herself under those circumstances? Why cut girls down?
The next day Venus played Davenport in the Wimbledon final. Venus lost the first set, 4-6, but then in an epic match that lasted 2 hours 45 minutes, came back to win 7-6 (4), 9-7. She fell to her knees. The performance in the meeting did not take away. This — the combined effort, on and off the court — was always Venus’s game. It took a couple of years, an op-ed by Venus in The Times of London (“How can it be that Wimbledon finds itself on the wrong side of history?”) and an endorsement in Parliament from Prime Minister Tony Blair. But in 2007, in a bit of cosmic justice, Venus won Wimbledon again and became the first female champion to receive a check for the exact same amount as Wimbledon’s winning man.
Venus won Wimbledon for her fifth — and final — time in 2008. Three years later, in 2011, she found out she had Sjogren’s syndrome. She brushed off my questions about how her autoimmune disorder is affecting her life these days. “I definitely do make sure I get my rest even though I’m on a busy schedule” was just about all she would say. But between 2011 and 2016, Venus made it to only one Grand Slam semifinal — Wimbledon, in 2016, which she lost to Angelique Kerber. Venus’s ranking dropped from No. 5 at the end of 2010 to No. 103 a year 1ater.
Serena, meanwhile, kept on winning, and winning, and winning. Twenty-three Grand Slam titles. Three hundred nineteen weeks ranked No. 1. Considered by some to be not only the greatest tennis player ever, male or female, but quite possibly the greatest athlete ever, full stop. Serena, who was newly pregnant, beat Venus in the finals of the Australian Open in late January 2017. That was the last tournament she played before she gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., on Sept. 1, 2017.
With Serena sidelined on maternity leave for most of 2017, Venus had her best year of the past 10. In addition to the 2017 Australian Open final, she reached the finals at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the U.S. Open. Venus finished 2017 ranked fifth. She earned more prize money that year than any other woman on tour.
Serena returned in 2018. Venus finished that year ranked 40th.
This past March Venus played at Indian Wells, just outside Palm Springs, Calif. The tournament was the site of one of the most excruciating episodes in Operation Williams. In 2001, Venus, age 20, and Serena, age 19, were to play each other in the semifinals. They warmed each other up. They walked out onto the court. Then Venus withdrew from the match with tendinitis in her knee four minutes before the match was to start.
The crowd — heavily old, white and rich — was upset, justifiably so. They’d paid for their seats, spent the afternoon getting to them and now ... no match. But the crowd’s anger seemed to be born of more than disappointment. The crowd’s anger seemed hot, personal, and consensus at the pavilion quickly landed on the idea that Richard had fixed the match. This was Serena’s tournament, according to Richard, or so the thinking went. The best thing for his family was for Venus to scratch and give her sister a bye to the finals. Afterward, Richard told reporters that angry fans called him “nigger.” One, Richard claimed, said he wished he could “skin you alive.” Two days later, in the final, Serena faced Kim Clijsters. The crowd booed Serena, loudly. Still she won. At a tournament a few weeks later, the press continued asking Venus about the episode.
“Do you have any comment on what they claim, racism and all that junk?” one reporter asked.
Venus answered, “I don’t think racism is junk at all.”
Both sisters vowed never to play Indian Wells again. Neither did for 14 years. Then in 2015, Serena decided to return. She’d been reading Nelson Mandela, she said. She wanted to practice forgiveness. She had become, by then, the almost mystically powerful woman only Venus and Richard could have imagined, the second stage of Richard’s fantastic, world-changing, two-stage rocket. There was never any Serena without Venus. There was never any second stage without the first. Venus was the mightiest female player anyone had ever seen. Serena rode her power through the atmosphere. Then she exploded, becoming propulsively excellent, a woman who knew how to harness energies that, in less masterful hands, burn out of control. She was the girl who smashed the oranges, all grown up. The woman who loved her sister’s dog Harry for eating her own dog’s food.
The following year, 2016, Venus decided to play Indian Wells, too. To explain why, she published an essay in The Players Tribune that is essentially an open letter about being Serena’s sister.
For me, being the big sister meant that, when I made my professional debut, I was the only player on tour who looked like me. I was the only player with my skin color, with my hair, with my background, with my style.
Being the big sister meant that, when I became world No. 1 in 2002, I wasn’t just world No. 1. I was also the first black American woman to reach No. 1. And it meant that I had to carry with me the importance of what I had accomplished. And I was honored to do that.
Being the big sister meant that, when my little sister made her professional debut, I became a lot of new things to her — her colleague, her competitor, her business partner, her doubles partner. But I was still, first and foremost, the one thing I had always been: her family. I was her protector — her first line of defense against outside forces. And I cherished that.
Venus closed the letter by acknowledging it was now time for her to follow Serena, to Indian Wells and elsewhere. She ended by calling Serena “the greatest player in the world.”
This year, at Indian Wells, Serena dropped out with a virus and Venus made it five rounds, to the quarterfinals. The stands were mostly filled, still, with old, rich white people. The theme on the evening of Venus’s quarterfinal was Rat Pack night. Sinatra blared from the speakers.
But now the crowd in Palm Springs adored Venus. She walked out in her white EleVen dress and taped right knee, self-possessed and elegant as ever. She played Angelique Kerber, then ranked No. 8, a player who defeats her opponents by running down and returning every single ball. Playing a match against Kerber is like racing a clock for time.
Between points Kerber bounced up and down on her toes, checking to make sure the spring in her legs was still there. Venus didn’t bounce. She put her hands on her hips. She retied her shoe. She knows her spring is gone.
Through the first set, Venus was down, then Venus was up. She managed to battle Kerber to six games all, but after she lost the tiebreaker, Venus knew she was done. At the end of the second set, fans stood in reverence and appreciation, for today, for all of it, for her service in changing their world.
Venus raised her arm, waved and twirled. Then she walked off the court alone.
Nevertheless, Vee throttles Zheng 6-1 6-0.