On the Court and Beyond

0
1152

Legendary tennis pro Venus Williams looks ahead to a future that is expected to shine as bright as her early career.

By Chris Oddo

DeuceSkort_AdOutTank_057

Moments after winning the Wimbledon final in July 2000, Venus Williams was asked to describe in one word how she felt about securing her first Grand Slam title at the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament. The 20-year-old at the time didn’t hesitate to reply: “Proud.”

With that one word, Williams succinctly conveyed her refreshing modesty to the world. “I remember growing up my dad said, ‘Pick a tournament you want to win more than any other,’ and I said Wimbledon,” Williams says. “Maybe it was a little prophetic that that would be the tournament where I would play so well.”

Since that maiden Grand Slam in 2000, Williams, now nearly 33 years old and in possession of 22 Grand Slam titles as well as four Olympic gold medals, has won more at Wimbledon than anywhere else. “I think it suits my game,” Williams says of the only Grand Slam that is played on the sport’s original surface—grass. “The first time I won it, it just kind of was the perfect storm about having the right attitude and me being the person in the draw that deserved it the most and wanted it the most.”

Now setting her sights on this year’s Wimbledon and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Williams has her work cut out for her. But those who have watched her on the court for years know that Williams is anything but lackluster in talent and motivation.

shutterstock_126159056_edituseonly_NealeCousland
Venus (right) and Serena Williams compete in a doubles match at the 2013 Australian
Open on Jan. 22, 2013, in Melbourne, Australia.

An Athletic Revolution

Growing up in the working-class city of Compton, Calif., Venus Ebony Starr Williams and her sister Serena spent countless hours practicing tennis under the tutelage of their parents, Richard Williams and Oracene Price, who wanted their daughters to excel at a sport as an escape from inner-city life. Williams showed signs of greatness early on, picking up the game when she was just 4 years old and winning tournaments at 10. By the age of 12, she held a 63-0 record in the United States Tennis Association’s youth tour, leading to her professional debut in 1994 at the Bank of the West Classic in California.

A positive symbol for not only athletes but also for female athletes, Williams is a revolution in a tennis dress. In her early success, she was living proof that tennis was entering a new era in which anybody with a dream, from any walk of life, could have a chance to be a champion. Over the next several years at Wimbledon, Williams would unleash an intense passion for the game, one that the sport had never seen before. Long-limbed, lightning quick, lithe and powerful, she was impossible to stop.

From the moment she defeated fellow American Lindsay Davenport for that first Wimbledon title in 2000, her victories at the esteemed Grand Slam continued to escalate. “Whenever I would get [to Wimbledon], my attitude was so good; I was like ‘I’m not losing,’ ” she says.

That triumph not only marked the beginning of her dominance at Wimbledon, but also for both Williams sisters as the greatest pair of siblings to ever play the sport. Williams and her sister would both go on to acquire the doubles title and later the Olympic gold medal. Additionally, both sisters have had the distinction of being ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) at the World No. 1 position.

IIn 2002, after the French Open, Venus and Serena were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, becoming the first siblings, male or female, to occupy the top two spots at the same time.

More than a decade later, Williams still graces headlines. In 2012, she won her 44th career WTA title and her first in more than two and half years at the BGL Luxembourg Open. Although she’s been slowed by illness (in 2011, she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, a little-known autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and joint pain) and injury (in March 2013, she withdrew from the Sony Open with a lower back injury), Williams, more than anything, is still proud.

“I’m a believer,” Williams says. “I always feel like I’m going to find a way. Challenges don’t bother me because I know I’m going to get past them and conquer them eventually. I have failed at times, but I didn’t see it that way; I just saw it as not the end of the story yet.”

GettyImages_78108066_creditCynthiaLum
Williams secures the women’s singles title at the 2005
Wimbledon Championship.

A Remarkable Resurgence

In 2011, after Williams revealed to the world that she was suffering from Sjögren’s syndrome, she announced that she would be withdrawing from the U.S. Open that year. Subsequently, there were rumors that her career as a tennis player might be finished. Instead, she sought holistic treatment and incorporated a vegan, raw food diet to counter the inflammation in her joints that had unknowingly plagued her for years prior to the diagnosis.

After a six-month hiatus, and dropping outside of the top 100 in rankings, Williams made her return to the courts in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open in March 2012. Williams opened up to the press afterward in an emotional statement, saying, “Just being here is a win for me. I have nothing to lose.”

Despite the grim reality—when asked how she felt, she replied, “Like a person with an autoimmune disease”—Williams declared her goal of making the Olympics in London in July 2012. It sounded good in theory, but many wondered if she would be able to win enough matches in order to rank high enough to meet the qualification requirements.

For those that doubted, Williams surpassed all expectations, winning 11 of her next 15 matches to qualify. A few months later, Williams stood on the podium in London, accepting her fourth Olympic gold medal alongside her sister at a time when many people were surprised she was even out of bed. “I feel like I haven’t done enough in tennis at all,” she says. “I’m extremely happy with my accomplishments, but I’d love to do more.”

As humble as she is successful, Williams has never sacrificed her dignity to win. The five-time Wimbledon singles champion (one of only four women in history to win that many) eventually learned to be stoic on the court, possessing a fire on the inside but displaying a Zen countenance on the outside for opponents and fans to see.

“I think she had a natural ability to be pretty elegant,” says Pam Shriver, an ESPN tennis analyst and International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, who mentored Williams in the late 1990s. “She just needed to mature a little bit. I feel like she’s carried the burden of more things than most of us know in a very gracious way.”

Williams, whose grace doesn’t stop when she steps off the court, has blazed a trail as an agent of change. She has led the fight for equal prize money for men and women, writing an eloquent opinion piece in a British newspaper and stating the case to the Grand Slam committee on the eve of her 2005 Wimbledon final. Williams also spoke out in favor of Shahar Peer, an Israeli player who was denied a visa to the United Arab Emirates for a major tour event in 2009 simply because of her heritage. “I had the opportunity because I had the microphone,” said Williams at the time, downplaying her courageous act. But others champion her courage.

“I feel she’s been the best leader of this generation of women’s tennis players,” Shriver says. “I think she’s taken the most responsibility in the traditional sense of leaving women’s tennis better than when [she] joined it. [Williams], more than anybody, has not just talked the talk but she’s walked the walk.”

Love Game Jacket_Floral_001
Williams has blazed a trail as an agent of change.

Designing the Future

Though Williams is a self-professed obsessive when it comes to tennis, she still finds time to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors as her career evolves. After launching her own interior design company, V Starr Interiors, in 2002, Williams continued to tap her artistic side by entering the world of fashion design. It started as an experiment, with Williams eschewing clothing sponsorships and creating her own line of tennis apparel, EleVen, in 2007.

Oftentimes shocking and eccentric, Williams’ most garish inventions tend to garner as much attention as her tennis does these days. In 2010, a burlesque-inspired outfit coupled with skin-colored undergarments at the French Open got people talking about the brand, though not all opinions were favorable.

It wasn’t the only outfit, however, that sparked conversation. Williams’ ensembles have become one of the most anticipated sideshows of each Grand Slam, with photographers lining up in the pits to capture her looks. “In the past I did lots of different things,” Williams says. “I did lace on the court and I did fringe, so I’ve done some pretty avant-garde design.”

These days, Williams is simplifying her aesthetic, concentrating on cleaner lines, classic prints and reaching a wider audience. “Now it’s more about trying to appeal to everyone while still staying true to my vision,” she says.

The same passion and determination that has enabled Williams to become one of the greatest tennis players of her generation has helped her develop EleVen. In the last year, the company grew from an experiment to a bona fide clothing line available at boutiques, tennis apparel stores, tennis tournaments and online.

And Williams wants to take it higher. “My dream is, on a higher level, to get people to live healthy, active lifestyles,” she says. “To get them to feel good about themselves through what their doing with their bodies, and also with what they’re wearing, because it will make them feel confident.”

While confidence is one thing that has never been an issue for the tennis superstar, she’s unsure of what lies ahead for her—but she knows she’s up for any challenge. In the recently released documentary “Venus and Serena,” which debuted in theaters and online earlier this year, Williams reveals that she’d like to play until she’s 40, but now she’s not so sure anymore.

“I think I might have been slightly exaggerating,” she says. “But who knows? We’ll see—I’ve never had a traditional career. You can always say, ‘This is where I want to be,’ but I think very few of us get there the way we think we’re going to. You have to sometimes just throw away the plans and go with it, and that’s what I think I’ll do.”