In a 2016 column for The Players Tribune on her return to Indian Wells after a 15-year boycott, Venus Williams wrote about being a big sister. It was different for the American in her family and in the big, bad world of professional sport.
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.
This was yet another reminder how intertwined the lives and legacies of the Williams sisters are. The impact that the two girls who grew up in a neighbourhood like Compton in California had on global sport is phenomenal. But this personal essay also accentuated a facet of Venus’ personality that has often been confused with underachievement.
In many ways, Venus’ role in the world the Williams made was that of being the big sister to, as she mentioned in the above piece, “the greatest player in the world.”
On one level, her identity is tied to that of Serena Williams, who is 15 months younger than her and has surpassed almost all the milestones Venus was first to and more. But Venus was never reduced or limited to being the big sister because of Serena’s achievements. Yes, Serena has a record 23 Grand Slams to Venus’s seven (from 16 finals), she was world No 1 for 319 weeks to Venus’ 11. She was the first female athlete to sign a massive $40 million deal with Reebok, but her sister has long since surpassed that figure with Nike.
But on another level, Venus stands alone: she has fought against racism, gender wage gap, a damaging disease and the ravages of time, to stand tall and bold and competitive. Her battles saw her achieve victories that extends far beyond her trophies.
At 40, Venus is the oldest player in the top 100; her ranking was 67 when it was frozen as the tour shut down due to coronavirus. She holds the record for most single Grand Slam appearances at 85, despite several absences. She was 14 when she turned pro in 1994 and over the last two decades has ridden the giddy high and plunging lows of the sport. She burst onto the scene, a strapping 6 foot 1 with an athletic frame and game which could beat the best, but over the years the power has dimmed and the energy sapped because of her auto-immune disease.
Her last Grand Slam title came more than 12 years ago in 2008 but her last Grand Slam final was only three years ago, also at Wimbledon. In fact, she scripted an inspiring resurgence in 2017, reaching two Major finals and finishing the year as world No 5.
But the 30s have taken their toll. At Wimbledon and Australian Open, Venus was knocked out in the first round by a 15-year-old Coco Gauff and she has not reached the second week of a Grand Slam since 2017. For some, this signals an end. But not for Venus. She soldiers on. A few days before turning 40, she expressed a desire to win the French Open and Australian Open, the two Slams she hasn’t won as yet. It tells you her bent of mind – she is here for the game and to compete.
Legacy beyond tennis
This desire to do more, achieve more is her legacy: today, a Gauff can do what she does because a Venus made the path easier.
Consider this troubling incident from the 1999 Australian Open. While playing a match against Lindsay Davenport, the teenager was penalised on break point for causing a disturbance when the beads from her hair – a trademark of her and Serena’s hairstyle in their early days, often seen as an homage to their black culture – fell off. The American’s entire game unraveled thereafter and she was bageled.
Williams: “But wait a minute, no one is distracted.”
Overberg: “I can’t guess whether she is distracted or not. I have to call it if they’re there.
Williams: “I am not causing a disturbance here. I think the referee should come out. No one is disturbed! Come on out!
Tournament referee Peter Bellenger went out on the court and upheld Overberg’s ruling.
“This has never happened to me before,” she said. “There’s no disturbance. No one is being disturbed. I don’t care. . . .
“As if I was doing this on purpose. Do you see me pulling hair, pulling them out? This is so out of control. This is out of control!” shouted Williams at the officials, as she walked back on the court to resume play.— Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times
It was a tough moment so early in her career, it derailed her then. There would be many more moments like this when Venus was forcefully reminded that she was different. The infamous Indian Wells incident was also prompted by her pulling out of the clash against Serena and the initial boos were all directed at her. The sisters grew from that and are fighting to end the discrimination till date.
But perhaps the most striking warrior Venus moment was when she campaigned for equal prize money for men and women at Wimbledon, as recently as 2006, and was blatantly ignored. A day before her final, Venus addressed the annual meeting of the Grand Slam committee with representatives from the four Grand Slam events plus the WTA and ATP.
“Close your eyes. No peeking. Now, I would like you to imagine being a young girl growing up with dreams of being an athlete, a scientist, an artist, president of the United States. And then, one day, somebody tells you that you can’t be that, you can’t reach the same level as a boy who has worked as hard as you, done as well as you. You’re told that there’s a limit. There’s a limit to what you can achieve because of your gender.”
But her words had no effect till she wrote a hard-hitting editorial that appeared in The Times of on June 26, 2006, which proved to be the catalyst. “It is a shame that the greatest tournament in tennis, which should be a positive symbol for the sport, has been tarnished. How can it be that Wimbledon finds itself on the wrong side of history?”
Support poured in, including from Tony Blair and in 2007, Wimbledon became the last Grand Slam to offer equal prize money. Fittingly, Venus defended her title and was the first to taste the fruit of her labour.
She has applied the same never-say-die approach to her physical limits as well.
In 2011, she was diagnosed with the autoimmune, fatigue-inducing illness Sjogren’s Syndrome and it changed her entire lifestyle, and perhaps her career graph as well.
That was the first time in her career that she didn’t reach the quarterfinals at any Major in a season. Her ranking dropped to 105 and she ended the year outside of the top 50 for the first time since 1997.
After the diagnosis, she adopted a vegan diet, reduced her intake of calories and sugars and worked harder on her body. As a result, she returned and won a WTA title for the first time in over two and half years at the 2012 Luxembourg Open.
It was a gradual process but in 2015, she re-entered the top ten for the first time since 2011 and ended the year at No. 7 in the WTA rankings, receiving the WTA Comeback Player of the Year award. The next year, she was back in a Grand Slam semifinal but lost to Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon. She would win the doubles with Serena. A year later, she would lose the final to Garbine Muguruza. But it would all feel like a win, if you looked back (and then forward) from where she was in 2011.
And that’s what sets Venus truly high: not her personal tennis victories alone, although they are numerous; but the victories she achieved over circumstances and against odds that would have unsettled lesser players. She was not the best tennis player even in her family, but she was the role model for the greatest of all times and countless other women and black players. Her will to compete and be involved with the game, even at 40, is extraordinary; the records that come with it are an added bonus.