Just imagine what she’s been through.
As a wide-eyed girl in the inner city, she was the daughter of a man who assured us that his child would be the best tennis player in the world. That’s not such an easy thing to live up to. (Whatever happened to, “Just go out there and find your own bliss?”)
In 1994, just 14 years old, she came into a white sport with statement braids in her hair and lofty visions hovering about her. She graciously embraced the role of elder sister, as Serena went through trial and turmoil and triumph – being howled at at a California tournament, and, years later, almost dying of an aneurysm. And Venus’s half-sister, Yetunde, was murdered – a devastating blow.
In recent years, Venus’ game seemed a bit adrift. She had some glory moments and won three Olympic medals. But time and again we saw her exit early from big tournaments. Between her victory at the 2008 Wimbledon and her run to this year’s Aussie Open final, she reached just one Grand Slam final. As her ranking wavered down to as low as No. 23, she often was left to play the role of Serena’s doubles partner or her prime cheerleader. The fact that all this was while she was coping with Sjogren’s Syndrome is incomprehensible. How could anyone perform as an elite athlete with such a serious anti-immune malady?
But Venus is our rare gem. There’s one planet with that name. The Louvre displays the singular Venus de Milo statue. And tennis is blessed with our “V.”
Journalists anticipated having a good ‘ol time with her here in London. With Serena pregnant, the game plan was to pepper her with questions about becoming Auntie Venus, or to seek a reaction from her to those incredible Vanity Fair photographs celebrating Serena’s body.
Little did we know that she was involved in a horrific accident in Florida that killed a 78-year-old man. And at first it was said it was Venus’ fault. One felt the world was pounding down on her shoulders. At one extraordinary press conference, the usually private introvert broke down and spoke on how “devastated and heartbroken” she was.”
Then midway through the tournament, word came out that Venus was not at fault. You could sense her monumental relief. Billie Jean King noted that when Venus heard the good news, “that’s when she did her [signature] twirl. She is a very emotional, intelligent woman – reflective and very wise.”
No kidding – Venus is not only one of the greatest performers in sports, she is one of the game’s greatest survivors. She’s taught us more by example than by any eloquent, “I-have-a-dream” words. Without fanfare, she’s stood up to anti-Semitism in the Middle East and to unequal prize money on the circuit.
At 37, she seems eternal. “Persistence,” says the USTA’s Martin Blackman, is her greatest attribute. When I asked Venus’ mother Oracene, “What do you most admire in your daughter?” she responded, “Stick-to-itiveness, if that’s a word.”
I replied, “It’s a word, a good word.” Then I asked Oracene, “What qualities has Venus called on most to get through all the hefty obstacles that have come her way?” She said, “Faith in God, love of tennis and belief in herself.”
And that self-belief was the key to her semifinal victory over the considerable No. 7 seed Jo Konta, who was hoping to become the first British woman to reach the final since 1977.
At 4-4 in a tight and tense first set, Konta had break points that would have allowed her to serve for the first set. But Williams called on her experience and confidence and hit an astonishing 106 mph second serve that allowed her to survive the crisis. Venus burst Konta’s British bubble as the American collected the first set 6-4 and won 12 of the next 13 points, while displaying all her blazing athleticism.
En route to her 6-4, 6-2 win, Venus hardly missed. But what she did miss was her sister. Just after her victory she told the BBC, “I miss Serena terribly. Usually it’s her. I wish she were here. I wish she could do it for me. But I have to do it myself.”
Of late, what Venus has done is share her devotion, telling us that tennis is a beautiful sport and her motivation has been simple – the love of this game.
Like another “Rough Rider,” Teddy Roosevelt, Venus speaks softly and carries a big stick, as she displays her shock power while speaking of the simple joys she relishes off-court – a good family, a good dog, and a good profession – which she’s pretty good at.
Today it was said that the semifinal was “going to bring Britain to a standstill.” But Venus Williams never stands still. She’s not perfect. She double-faults, occasionally she blows off a press conference and at times she can be a tad aloof. But, all the while she navigates with ease from one challenge to another, amazing us with her talent – what a serve, what a backhand, what a wingspan, what defense and court coverage. Today her explosive play dictated against a strong foe who likes to take the initiative. Most impressive was Venus’ guts ‘n grit. Until we read her autobiography, we may never know how she could possibly have played through the anguish that gripped her last week.
Then again, this woman has a certain grace – towering and lean. We imagine her as both an elegant Zulu royal and a nuanced 21st-century pioneer with wide-ranging interests, from accounting to design, where she displays her keen eye for fine lines and assorted colors.
Speaking of color, this woman has so helped our nation with the issue that has baffled us from our inception. Now, few view her as an African-American athlete. Rather we think of her as a wonder and an inspiration who in her own way has taught us so much. And Saturday she just might win the curiously named Wimbledon trophy they call the Venus Rosewater Dish.