Venus Williams has filled her supporting role in tennis with grace and as her career winds down, is being acknowledged as one of the greats of all time. Her resolve to play on despite a disease that causes muscle and joint pain provides a different kind of inspiration.
Venus Williams made her debut at Wimbledon in 1997. That same year, Wang Qiang, Noami Osaka and Jeļena Ostapenko were born. In 2017, Williams beat all three of them on the way to reaching her ninth Wimbledon final.
At 37, she’s the oldest player in the top 300 in the world and has been on the professional circuit for two decades. In that time, she has won seven Grand Slams and millions of hearts, has battled poverty, racism, sexism and her sister, Serena, who has collected more than three times the number of major trophies.
Imagine being as good as Venus Williams and not even being the best tennis player in your family. But she has filled her supporting role with grace and as her career winds down, she is being acknowledged as one of the greats of all time.
Though the magic of the Williams sisters starts from their childhood, when their father Richard oversaw rigorous training sessions and insisted on top marks at school as well, Venus’ story is really about the second-half of her career.
In 2006, she suffered a wrist injury which plagued her for months and kept her out of competition. As a result, she slipped down the rankings to No.46, her lowest since being on the scene. After coming back in 2007, winning Wimbledon in 2008 and working her way back to No.2 on the rankings, she suffered a much more serious setback. In 2011, Venus was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune condition that should sap her of the energy required to play elite sport. That year was the first time she failed to reach the quarterfinals of any Grand Slam.
Her career appeared over, her flame extinguished.
By that stage, Serena was the headline act. She was the more successful sister, the stronger of the two and the more sassy in interviews. The leg-up her big sister provided – Venus was the runner-up in seven of Serena’s Grand Slam wins – was acknowledged as a novelty and Venus’ status as a role-model spoken of only as a sidebar to Serena’s. The truth is that as a pair, they provided young women and especially young black women with strikingly contrasting icons in a sport where they are under-represented.
Tennis remains an elite and mostly white sport. While Serena showed how a power-house personality could force itself through that, Venus wove her way in with determination. Her resolve to play on despite a disease that causes muscle and joint pain provides a different kind of inspiration and she admitted it has not been easy.
“It has been a challenge, and a challenge to myself, and really just knowing that I can’t be defeated by anything,” she said on CNN’s Open Court in March 2014.
That year, Venus won the Dubai Tennis Championships to claim her first cup since 2010 and begin her resurgence. In 2015, she progressed to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and reached the fourth and quarter-final rounds of Wimbledon and the US Open respectively, but lost to Serena both times. In 2016, she reached the semi-final at Wimbledon, and in 2017, the final. And that too after enduring the angst of a fatality in a car-crash which preceded the tournament.
In early June, Venus was driving in Palm Beach when she was hit by another vehicle. The passenger in the other vehicle died two weeks later and there was an investigation into the incident which eventually cleared her of any wrongdoing. She broke down in tears in a pre-match press conference when quizzed about the effect the accident had on her mental state. Whatever it was, it did not stop her from reaching the Wimbledon final or looking beyond that.
Despite her age, Venus insists retirement is not on her mind just yet. There are still more barriers to break through.
As recently as January this year, a commentator at the Australian Open made a racist comment about Venus. ESPN’s Doug Adler said Venus had “put the gorilla effect on” her opponent Stefanie Voegele. The comparison drew widespread criticism but that does not mean the sisters will be free of the challenges that have dominated their time in the public eye.
Even some of their own peers are guilty. Pre-Wimbledon, John McEnroe, said in an interview on NPR to promote his memoir that Serena, the holder of the 23 Grand Slam titles, would likely rank 700 in the world if she played on the men’s circuit.
Serena, who has taken the rest of the year off while she has her first child, issued a curt response on Twitter in which she asked McEnroe to respect her privacy during her pregnancy.
The Williams’ baby will not be able to escape the spotlight forever though, especially not with a mother and aunt as famous as Serena and Venus. And while Serena will remain the superstar, Venus has shone every bit as bright. – Written by Firdose Moonda