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
‘The Boys Club Is Being Infiltrated Slowly’
Women’s football in the southern African region has picked up pace in recent years, benefiting from some ground-breaking work across all spheres of the sport. Sue Destombes is a key figure driving it.
The Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) is leading the charge in women’s football, and particularly so, its Secretary General Sue Destombes, who has overseen the introduction of women’s competitions at Under-17 and Under-20 level, to go with a senior championship, in the last year.
COSAFA has 14 member nations across the region, and industry veteran Destombes is a key figure in driving an ambitious expansion of its operations that last year saw them host six international tournaments in four different countries – South Africa, Mauritius, Malawi and Zambia.
Destombes was recently recognized for her contribution to football with a Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2019 Hollard Sport Industry Awards.
She has been involved with the organization since the first men’s senior COSAFA Cup was played in 1997, and leads a team that has a heavy female influence, along with the head of the COSAFA media office, Lynda Greeff, and long-serving office manager, Nobuhle Masuku, among others.
In what has been typically a male-dominated industry, Destombes has managed to leave her mark not only on COSAFA, but also the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and global governing body FIFA.
“I have never found being a women a barrier to entry in football, and cannot remember any situation where I felt excluded because I am a woman, but that does not mean there is not a ‘boys’ club’ environment,” Destombes tells FORBES AFRICA.
“It is not a problem in the business of football, but maybe on a social level, yes, there can be some exclusion. But I don’t work in football for the social gatherings, so it does not bother me.”
Destombes says she is pleased that women are starting to play a greater role in football administration, but says there is a long way to go.
“In the 54 African member associations of FIFA, we only have one female president in Isha Johansen from Sierra Leone. But we are slowly starting to see a change in terms of female representation on executive committees and even within the CAF secretariat.
“FIFA, for the first time in their 116-year history, have a female Secretary General in Fatma Samoura (from Senegal), so maybe the boys’ club is being infiltrated slowly.”
Destombes has been determined to help grow the women’s game in the COSAFA region – but not just for players.
COSAFA’s mandate includes upskilling coaches, match officials and even administrators, who all gain valuable experience, not only from the tournaments that are played, but also from targeted workshops that leave behind a lasting imprint in host cities across the region.
“We don’t just pitch up, play games and say goodbye,” Destombes says. “We always leave a legacy in whichever country we are in.
“We have done incredible work to develop male and female referees across the region, many of who have gone on to make the FIFA panel. We have put aspiring male and female coaches through courses to get their D-License, which is really the first step in a coaching career.”
Women’s football has been increasing in focus, with South Africa making the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. Their coach, Desiree Ellis, has spoken multiple times of how COSAFA helped her mould her squad, and her own skills, by providing quality competition at tournaments.
“It has long been COSAFA’s wish to grow women’s football and we have made great strides in recent times. Last year was the first in which we held three women’s competitions in the various age-groups, and we will do that again in 2020,” Destombes confirms.
“It is about providing opportunity to girls to both play the game, or be involved in another capacity such as coaching and administration.”
The senior COSAFA Women’s Championship that was held in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth last year drew bumper crowds, suggesting there is plenty of interest in the female game from fans.
But finding commercial partners is more challenging, admits Destombes.
“One of the new tournaments we want to implement is a women’s club Champions League, for teams across the region. That would truly catapult the development of the game. But it is dependent on finding commercial partners.”
That is true for much of the work done by COSAFA. While they do get funding from FIFA for tournaments, it is a finite amount and does not come close to covering the expense.
“Our number one challenge is the financial aspect,” Destombes says. “We are the biggest of the six CAF zones that make up the continent, with the most members, and we would like to include everybody.
“For example, our women’s Under-17 and Under-20 competitions had eight teams competing last year, and we would love to expand that to at least 12 to provide greater opportunity.
“But that is a huge leap in the budget, so we need commercial partners and bullish broadcasters who want this type of content.
– Nick Said
Get Set Mo!
Morongoa Mahope feeds her love for extreme biking with petrol and adrenaline. The funds for her pet passion come from her nine-to-five accounting job.
About 10kms north of the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in South Africa is another racetrack, where superbikes and sports cars are noisily revving up their engines, getting ready for a practice run on a cold Wednesday afternoon in Johannesburg.
At first glance at the Zwartkops racetrack is a melange of male drivers and mechanics.
But also revving up a superbike, the one numbered 83, is Morongoa Mahope from Mahwelereng in the Limpopo province of South Africa.
She is about to clock 270kmph on her black bike, tagged #Mo83 in pink.
When she is not burning rubber on the racetrack, Mahope is an accountant working for an advertising agency in the city.
“When I started [superbiking], it was mainly only for leisure because I love the sound bikes and cars make. I’m a petrol head and just wanted it to commute to work,” she says.
Her journey started in 2013 when she convinced her husband and family about buying a superbike. Her family was initially apprehensive and viewed superbike racing as dangerous.
Her husband finally relented and Mahope went for a day’s training to see if she really would be interested in the bike before investing in it. The 36-year-old sports fanatic succumbed, and indeed pursued her wish.
“I still have my first bike; it’s a green and black Kawasaki Ninja 250cc. I was just using it to [go to] work until I met a biking club, the Eagle Bikers Club Limpopo,” she recalls.
Mahope was riding with the club, doing breakfast runs between Johannesburg and Limpopo; but, in 2015, they took a trip to Nelspruit in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.
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Navigating the mountainous, curvy roads, Mahope was overtaking men with her small 250cc bike at the bends.
She was then goaded by her fellow riders to try the racing circuit.
“I went to the track and met a superbike racer; Themba Khumalo, and I started following his journey. I spent more time on the track, practising so I could start racing in 2016. The love for the sport was getting deeper and deeper,” says Mahope.
Khumalo, a professional superbike rider who has raced in the European Championships, says he met Mahope at Zwartkops and it was her first time at the track, and she was quite fast at the corners.
He went up to her to introduce himself because it was rare to see a black woman on a racetrack.
“I then took her through the fundamentals of racing and the basics; the type of bike she would need and the equipment. I could see how committed she was and how quick she was learning, and her lack of fear. She was going farther than where she was,” says Khumalo.
However, her male counterparts were not impressed with her pace on the track; they remarked negatively about her. But Mahope didn’t let the minimizing comments derail her mission.
Unfortunately, Mahope was involved in an accident during training on Valentine’s Day in 2017 and fractured her clavicle before her first race. That took her off the bike for six months.
She joked about the incident with friends, but they persisted and told her it’s an unsafe sport. That encouraged her even more; she wore her helmet and gloves, clocking higher speeds than ever before on her superbike.
Indeed, it was a learning curve. A few months later, she was invited to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe to race.
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Her first official race was the same year as the injury; it was a club race in Delmas, Mpumalanga, at the Red Star Raceway. She had never been on the grid nor practised how to stud, but for her, it was more about the experience despite the shivers and nerves.
“I finished the race and I was second last. It’s part of how you start but you will improve to be better. And now, I have lost count of the races I have competed in,” she says.
Mahope is racing in the short circuit series for women who use the 250cc, being the only black woman to participate. She also participated in the Extreme Festival tour series, a regional race in which she used her Kawasaki Ninja ZX600cc, racing men with bigger and louder bikes.
“I am the first black woman to be in the grand prix and the challenges that I faced were having to teach myself a lot of things. I had to learn how to ride on the track, the speed, the decelerating, all was new to me. I wasn’t helped.”
Mahope started at a late stage with the sport, and had to put in more time and effort in a short period to get to where she is currently.
Today, she assists women who are starting with the sport.
Sadly, in South Africa, there is no national league for women to race and represent the country despite finishing in the top three in the 2019 races.
With all her achievements thus far, Mahope’s salary sustains her motorsport passion.
“Racing is very expensive; the more you practise, the more you get better and the more you spend money. On practice day, I spend about R3,000 ($206) and would practise twice a week at different tracks. In total, I would spend R18,000 ($1,235) a month for the track excluding the travel costs to the track and race day,” she explains.These costs cover tyres, fuel and entrance to the tracks.
A sum of about R40,000 ($2,744) can get you geared up for the bike and track.
It just shows this daredevil accountant can balance both the books and the bike.
Playing Two Shots Ahead
The 16-year-old dreams of lifting the French Open title in the future, but also hopes to inspire a generation of black players to take up tennis.
Khololwam Montsi, 16, a rising star of South African tennis, recently broke into the list of top 20 junior tennis players in the world after an excellent year that has seen him take part in tournaments in Australia, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Belgium and Japan, as well as take the South African circuit by storm.
The young prodigy trains at the Anthony Harris Tennis Academy in Cape Town, the same facility that developed Lloyd Harris into a top 100 player on the men’s senior ATP circuit.
Montsi was not actually all that interested in tennis until his older brother, Sipho, took up the game.
“I was focussed on karate and squash, those were my two main sports,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.
“But when I saw my brother playing tennis, I also wanted to join in. You know what it is like when you have an older brother, you want to follow him and impress him.
“At that time, I was representing South Africa in karate, but I decided to drop the sport for tennis because I started to enjoy it more, was getting better and doing well in tournaments. It motivated me a lot.
“I come from a very sporty background, my father, Xolani, played rugby and soccer; my mother, Phumla, was a sprinter. When I was younger, I did everything – rugby, soccer, cricket, swimming, athletics, the lot. I just love to compete.”
Montsi has developed quickly and, despite his relatively short frame, excelled with racquet in hand to emerge as arguably South Africa’s leading young talent.
“For me, since I am usually always playing against guys bigger than me, my game is not all about power,” he says. “My strength comes from my mind, I feel like I’m smarter than everybody else on court. I can pull off any shot.
“I read the game really well for someone of this age. I play two shots ahead of my opponents and can hit the ball into areas where I know where they will return it to me. That gives me an advantage to be ready. It is the big strength in my game.
“I would love to win the French Open, I’m a big fan of clay courts, you get more time to play. It is better for me at my height.”
And as for his personal role model?
“I would take a few players and combine that. I love Rafa Nadal, he never gives up. I love [Novak] Djokovic, the way he moves across court and is super flexible. Then someone like [Gael] Monfils for the way he can pull off amazing shots.”
South Africa has lacked a black player on the singles circuit and Montsi is hopeful he will break the mould, saying he takes great satisfaction from being a pioneer.
“I want to lift up tennis as a black boy. We do not see tennis as a big sport in South Africa, barely any black kids play. I don’t want to put pressure on myself, but I do feel a responsibility to help black tennis players get opportunities.
“I play for myself, my family, my coaches and for black people. I would like to help grow the game in South Africa for them. It would be cool if I could help get more people to start playing tennis.”
The obvious question is how he juggles traveling the world and his school work, but Montsi has found a solution.
“I do online home-schooling, which means I can do all my work at tournaments, anywhere in the world as long as I have my laptop. It is tough to balance the two, it takes a lot of discipline.
“I do sometimes think, ‘I’m tired today, I won’t do it’ and I was behind for quite a while, but with the home-schooling system, it is perfect, I have caught up quickly.”
Montsi is preparing for the Australian Junior Open in January, the start of a busy year that will hopefully also see him take part in the senior ATP Tour at some stage.
“To be the first black African to win a Junior Grand Slam would be amazing for me,” he says, adding his future success may depend on funding.
“To become a successful tennis player, you need financial support to get to tournaments. I am being helped a lot, but things can change quickly. I do see myself playing on the pro-circuit, that is my dream. I feel like I can keep my tennis up, but if the finances aren’t there.”
By Nick Said
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