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Venus Williams, the quiet trailblazer

By Neil Schlecht
Sunday, September 06, 2015

Venus Williams turned pro at age 14. Twenty-one years later, she is still near the top of the game, No. 23 in the world. 

In a third-round match widely expected to be a passing of the torch – against a rising star, Belinda Bencic, who was born in 1997, the same year Venus took Flushing Meadows by storm, reaching the final in her first try – Venus turned back the clock, putting on a vintage performance of aggressive, power tennis. 

But the Venus Williams story isn’t strictly about longevity, or even titles, rankings and prize money. It’s also one of grace and humility.

The first superstar in the Williams family, Venus has quietly and elegantly ceded the brightest glare of the spotlight to her supernova little sister Serena. Venus patiently answers questions about her sister, closing in on a calendar-year Grand Slam, and cheers her on at every opportunity. 

And that feels true to character for 35-year-old big sis. 

“Venus doesn’t have an envious bone in her body,” said Anne Worcester, who as CEO of the WTA attended Venus’s first pro tournament in Oakland in 1994.

Venus Williams, of course, is a Hall-of-Famer in her own right, with seven majors (five Wimbledons and two US Opens) and 46 career titles on her resume – not to mention four Olympic gold medals (three in doubles) and 13 Grand Slam doubles crowns.

Over the course of a nearly two-decades-long tennis career, the regal and soft-spoken Venus has become a sympathetic, beloved figure. 

For some, that may be based on a perception that she has been relegated to playing second fiddle to her sister. For others, it’s the result of Venus’s revelation four years ago that she suffers from Sjogren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease that slowed her late in her career, and the courageous way she has dealt with it. 

Venus doesn’t speak much about how she is affected by either of those conditions.

The elder Williams has remained constant and level-headed, even in the middle of a vortex of intense fame and the demands of a global professional sport. She has dealt admirably with an alternately adoring, demanding and questioning public as well as the cultural baggage that comes with being a young and proud African-American from a place, Compton, Calif., that is foreign to many in the tennis press and far removed from the Florida tennis academies that were producing America's top talents in the 1990s.

“Even though she ultimately became the top player in the world, Venus was always a keep-my-head-down, do-my-job, be-kind-to-everyone sort of person,” said Worcester, now tournament director of the Connecticut Open (which Venus won four consecutive times when it was called The Pilot Pen). 

Ask Venus Williams about dealing with Sjögren’s syndrome, and the answer is polite but circumspect. “I believe that everybody has their challenges. I have mine. I put my best foot forward,” she said. "Everybody's got problems. You get out here and play. If it doesn't work out, you go and work harder or go home. That's it.” 

Along with Lindsay Davenport, Venus ushered in the era that tennis commentator Mary Carillo memorably termed “big babe tennis.” Rangy and athletic, Venus crushed her serve, galloped side to side to hammer ground strokes off either wing and exploded to the net in two long strides.

She played with a power and ferocity the game hadn’t seen before. Her sister Serena amped it up from there. 

Along the way, there were memorable matches, championships, disappointments and encounters with her sister that were often more awkward than memorable. During those matches with Serena, it felt like the world was peering in on a family’s internal drama. 

Venus was a pioneer, and not only in how the game is played. It’s impossible to overstate her role in revolutionizing how women’s tennis is marketed, its exposure and the fight for equal prize money. The Williams sisters are the reason the women’s final at the US Open became a prime-time event. And the talented crew of young African-American women currently striving to make their own mark on tour – including Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend – recognize their debt to Venus for the trailblazer she was. 

Venus certainly didn’t need to stick around this long, to see who might take her place. She founded an interior design firm, V Starr, and created her own line of tennis apparel, EleVen. Just this year Williams quietly earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Indiana University. Williams easily could have opted out of the pro circuit grind and pursued those careers away from the pressures of tennis. 

“Tennis has been an important part of her life, but it’s never been her entire life,” offered Worcester. 

Venus has shied away from drama. She has remained private and buttoned-up, especially as compared to her more voluble sister, Serena, two years her junior. 

Of course it is to Serena that Venus will always be compared.    

Venus is bound to the life and career of her sister, both by choice and profession. Venus is Serena’s best friend and frequent housemate, constant companion, hitting partner and doubles partner. 

Venus has said she was the one who “used to always win in the early days.” But even early in his daughters’ development, when Serena was literally in the shadow of her taller, older sister, their father Richard predicted that Serena was the one destined to be the true world beater. 

When asked to assess the larger impact she and her sister have had, Venus demurred. 

“It's not something I think about every day. Wake up, brush my teeth, look in the mirror, like, 'What has my impact been?'” she said, provoking laughs among the press corps. “You try and live in the moment and do your best. It's sometimes hard to step out of yourself and see a bigger picture. But clearly, yes, it's thrilling and it's an honor to be part of something bigger than your own self.”