Early in his career the iconic Bob Dylan was asked, “Why do you do what you do?” He paused and said, “Because it’s the only thing I do. And I’m good at it.”
Seven years ago Venus Williams was asked a similar question. She replied, “I’m good at tennis. What else am I going to do?…Retiring is the easy way out. I don’t have time for easy.” She never has.
Venus did what she was supposed to. Her daddy, one of the most famed parents in sports history, envisioned that he and his wife would give birth to a couple of daughters and the family would revolutionize tennis and gain a fortune.
Boy, did they!
Never mind that tennis was a white sport. Venus and her little sister came out of Compton and woke ‘em up at the country club. They had braids and ‘tude and were well armed with a bold, brazen can-do mindset.
Memo to tennis: never underestimate a Williams. Sports had never seen such a couple of sisters-in-arms. Venus was the elder, the icebreaker who opened the door and began the journey. She protected her little sister and showed off her ample skills.
The brave, skinny Venus emerged on the world stage at just 14. She won – and she didn’t stop winning. The girl in braids would become an icon in lipstick. All the while, she lived, as Mary Carillo suggested, as if she was “dancing on the edge of a volcano.” Trophies were lifted – Venus won five Wimbledons and two US Opens. She barely blinked as she and a fiery Romanian foe, Irina Spirlea, collided during an infamous crossover at the 1997 US Open. Spirlea quipped later, “She thinks she’s f–king Venus Williams.”
After an Indian Wells crowd gave Venus and her sister a rough time, she didn’t hesitate to boycott the place for 15 years.
Venus bristled when she didn’t get the money she felt she deserved, and she fought with great success for equal pay for women. When an Israeli, Sahaar Peer, was banned in the Middle East, Venus said, “No way!” and in 2009 Peer became the first woman from her country to play in Dubai.
Venus made good on her dad’s boast. She became No. 1 in the world. Her fame spread. After she prevailed in a 1999 match, a four-year-old girl in Rock Island, Illinois told her daddy she wanted a tennis dress just like Venus. Sixteen years later, Madison Keys made it to the US Open finals. After Venus’s inspired 2000 win over Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon, one fan gushed, “She’s a Zulu warrior!” When Danielle Collins first saw Venus in a locker room she thought she’d cry.
Last Sunday, Coco Gauff said Venus was one of the three people who inspired her. Yet, over the years, Serena surpassed her older sister (and everyone else in the game). At times Venus seemed to be in the shadows. She didn’t get any invitations to royal weddings. She hasn’t dazzled in any Super Bowl commercials. When Serena wed a billionaire, Venus was asked about marriage. She quipped, “It sounds hard. You have to be patient and listen.”
We would come to see Venus more as Serena’s doubles partner, the most famous older sister to cheer from the Friends Box, and an appreciative auntie.
Sjogren’s Syndrome drained her energy and her involvement in a fatal car accident left her “devastated and heartbroken.” But Venus always battled back. Her Mom Oracene said her best quality is her “stick-to-it-ness.” But the last Slam she won was in 2008. She hasn’t lifted a singles trophy since 2016. Yes, she made the Wimbledon semis in 2016 and the US Open semis in 2017. Two years later she famously lost in the first round of Wimbledon to a fearless 15-year-old, Ms. Gauff. After falling in the Indian Wells semis in 2018, she was not pleased: “I’m not happy…Anyone who gets used to losses should give up on life.”
Still, why did she go on? Venus offered assorted explanations: “It’s a great job – there really are great benefits. The insurance is amazing, since I get MRIs every month – those get expensive. I may as well keep getting these benefits. You get to travel – it’s really cool.” Another time the old soul of tennis told us, “This old cat still has some tricks up her sleeve.”
But she became weary: “I’ve done a thousand interviews, and now only the truth comes out.” No one deflects at press conferences like Venus. When Chris McKendry asked her, “What’s the key to your longevity?” Venus replied, “I’m tired of talking about it.”
In her later years, the question was repeatedly asked, “Why are you still playing?” She had achieved so much. She had won so many titles. The world knew she’d battled a miserable malady. She was beloved. She had nothing to prove – or did she?
Time and again we see hints of her career fatigue. She would retreat into an introverted, protective shell – been there, done that, don’t bother me. She seems to be saying, “I’ve traveled so many miles. I’ve played so much, and, goodness, there have been too many press conferences.” Then she will shock us with glimpses of her old self.
Early in January, a mysterious injury derailed her for six months. Her grass court results were modest. She showed flashes of brilliance on the summer courts, where she rebuffed nine Madison Keys match points and beat the Top Twenty player Veronika Kudermetova. This year, her record is an unimpressive 3-7.
But her ranking is now No. 410 and tonight she was drilled by the little-known Belgian, Greet Minnen, who is No. 97. The 23,500 fans who came to Ashe Stadium to see a grand renewal were glum.
At first blush, Venus’s stunning 6-1, 6-1 loss seemed like a final nail in a sports-changing career. After all, she’d won it all. She’d been a kid phenom, feminist pioneer, social justice warrior, fierce competitor, transcendent champion, unapologetic lioness and astonishing survivor. But let’s face it, “V” defies categorization. She told us, “You can be an inspiration to every single person: man, woman and child. I never wanted to be boxed in.”
Venus never was. And she will never be.