The Inimitable VENUS Williams
What the Fangirl is focused on pop culture, and I can certainly say that the Williams sisters are a vital part of the pop culture conversation for women in sports.
“Wait, Venus Williams was #1?” I was sitting in the stands watching Venus during practice session earlier this summer when a college kid, who couldn’t have been more than 19 years old, mumbled this question while leafing through a program. “I thought Serena was always the much better player.”
I had to tamp down my impulse to give a history lesson, so now I’m giving it to you. All eyes are on Serena this week, as they should be, but Venus is more than a footnote. She’s a historically great player and person. From advocating for equal pay to fighting racism to battling an insidious disease, Venus is a model for women and men everywhere.
In Her Shoes
You’re 35 years old. You toil in the shadow of your little sister, and although this irony isn’t lost on you, you are never going to point it out. You’re never going to say one word to steal her glory. Serena Williams is trying to become the first person since Steffi Graf to win the Grand Slam. She’s on television constantly. She’s a gigantic international star. Now people identify you as Serena’s big sister. There was a time when she was identified primarily as Venus’ little sister.
You started the family tennis dynasty yourself, bursting onto the scene with beads in your hair, a smile on your face and a big booming game. Your family lived in Compton, playing tennis on public courts that the local gangs had ordered untouched. They recognized game. They knew you and your sister were like shooting stars. In fact your given name is Venus Ebony Starr.
You were taught the game by your dad, a true character who had ideas that were widely derided as wacky until they all proved true. You turned pro and you were welcomed by some and un-welcomed by others. The other players were cold, intimidated and sometimes even racist. Your dad said things that didn’t help. You handled this with total grace. You soldiered on, just trying to get better, trying to win and do your family proud.
You became the first African-American player to become #1 in the world. Tennis is constantly called lily-white, which as you know erases Latino, Asian and African American contributions to the sport. Great champions like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, paved the way for you and Serena, as did people like Zina Garrison (Gold Medalist), Mal Washington (Wimbledon finalist), Katrina Adams, Brian Shelton, Lori McNeil and Chandra Rubin. But there you were, the best player in the world, poised to begin winning grand slam tournaments, and go where few players have gone – to #1.
“My Other Daughter is Better”
Your dad told reporters that Serena was going to be the better player. Better than his other daughter. Better than you. Everyone laughed because well, that seemed ridiculous. Two people who grew up in the same household were going to be #1? Serena was barely 16 years old and now she was going to be better than the number one player in the world? He must be crazy.
Crazy like a fox. The world got a taste of Richard Williams’ genius in September 1999, when Serena shocked the world by winning the U.S. Open, becoming the first Williams to win a grand slam tournament.
You sat in the stands that day, the world #1 player, but your hoodie was pulled down almost over your eyes. You were supposed to be the first in your family to win a major, and instead you were witnessing the coronation of your little sister. You loved her, but as the video of that moment attests, it stung.
You got back up the next day and won the doubles title with Serena. In the years that followed, you and Serena developed a rivalry.
- You were the best two players in the game. You literally traded the number 1 ranking back and forth.
- Although Serena got that Open title first, you won four of your own.
- When healthy you were untouchable on grass – you won Wimbledon five times.
- You won four Olympic gold medals.
- Your rivalry with Serena is unprecedented; you faced each other in four consecutive Grand Slam finals in 2002 and 2003, a record which will never be broken.
Making a Stand
You endured ugliness when people accused your father of manipulating the matches between you and Serena. The match fixing charges would be laughable if they weren’t so evil in their intent. The idea was that your matches were one-sided, sloppy affairs… therefore they must be fixed. The matches were sloppy because of the emotions of two sisters competing for the sport’s biggest prizes. This charge was at least partially motivated by race.
The discrimination reached a crescendo at the 2001 master’s tournament in Indian Wells. You defaulted before your semifinal match against Serena due to a knee injury. The citizens of Palm Springs mercilessly booed you and your dad while you were taking your seats to watch Serena play the final. They relentlessly booed Serena during and after the final. You heard people in the stands using racial slurs and you vowed never to set foot in Indian Wells again.
You stood on principle, and for fourteen years no Williams entered the tournament at Indian Wells. The boycott of Indian Wells, one of the six or seven biggest tournaments in the world, cost you a lot of money over the years. It did not matter. Even in 2015, when Serena won praise by ending her boycott, you kept quiet and you stayed away. Serena isn’t wrong for giving the people of Indian Wells another chance. But you aren’t wrong for refusing to play; you’re still right.
You understand history. After Billie Jean King spent decades crusading for equal prize money, you took up the fight. You met with tournament officials and made the case. On the eve of the 2006 Wimbledon, you published an essay advocating for equal prize money for men and women.
I believe that athletes – especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women – should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling…
You arguments were compelling, and you won. Wimbledon now offers equal prize money.
You were signed by Reebok when you were 14 years old. But later in your career, when you could have made tens of millions being sponsored by Nike or Adidas, you spurned major offers and started your own clothing company, EleVen. You could’ve done a vanity line at any of the major clothiers, but you wanted to run your own company. You went to fashion school. Then you went to business school.
Just last month you graduated from Indiana University East with a degree in business administration. You also created a program that linked IU with the Women’s Tennis Association, so that players could get their college education while still competing on the tour. Recognizing that this was a good thing, the men’s tour followed suit, working with IU to give players the ability to control their own destiny through education.
The last years haven’t been easy. Your older sister was murdered. You were diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome in 2011, an auto-immune disease that zaps your energy. In response, you revamped your diet, your training, your life. You had to learn to play the game differently and take a lot of lumps. Your ranking dropped from #2 in 2010 to the high teens in 2015.
Meanwhile, little sis finally tamed her inner demons. She hired a different coach. She moved part time to Paris. She put a bit of distance between the two of you while she singlemindedly pursued history. How do you feel about these developments? We will never know all of your feelings, other than your pride in your sister’s accomplishments.
You have millions of fans who are praying that you get one more chance to hold up a Wimbledon or U.S. Open trophy. They know how positive you have remained in the face of adversity. They know you’ve paved the way for your sister’s rise. They suspect you took a small step back to give her the full spotlight. They know you are in your first grand slam quarterfinal in quite a few years and you want this win just as much as Serena.
Before you faced each other at 2015 Wimbledon, your sister said
“I would be rooting for Venus. She’s been through so much. She’s had a wonderful story. She’s been so inspiring to me; she’s just an incredible individual.”
We here at What the Fangirl agree. And we’ll be watching Tuesday night.