Venus Williams is on the other side of the pond during this Wimbledon fortnight, but a new documentary from Ava DuVernay—the first African-American woman to clinch the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival, for Middle of Nowhere—showcases the swagger and power that she brought to women's tennis in the late 1990s. Venus broke through in 2000 and 2001 for multiple Grand Slam titles and has not looked back. Venus Vs. debuted on ESPN, with interview subjects including Venus herself, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, and more.
The early part of the film captures the new era of unbridled power that Venus ushered in to the sport, realizing her potential and carving out for this kid from Compton enough capital—monetary and bargaining both—to let her speak her mind about equal prize money at Wimbledon, and in the sport in general, for male and female professionals. (Yes, that "petunias" quote—called a throwaway line by one interviewee, makes its way in.) In 2007, Venus became the first Wimbledon women's singles winner to receive a check for the same amount as the champion from the men's draw—in addition to raising the Venus Rosewater Dish overhead that she all but staked a claim to in the 2000s, winning it half the time.
It's wise to not forget that Venus remains the most decorated tennis player in Olympic history, with four gold medals total, now equaled by her sister. She's also a seven-time Slam winner, and has outlasted contemporaries and rivals ranging from Steffi Graf and Monica Seles to Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis and then again through the careers of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. (It can be said that little sister Serena has done the same.) This documentary's place in the world of sports and film both is to forever set in stone the career of Williams the Elder and her heralded fight for equal pay. King, the originator of that fracas and the titan of tennis who got the WTA started in the first place, speaks to Venus' place in the pantheon of sport. McEnroe also sidles up for an interview to say that he ultimately changed his own tune on equal pay, deciding that putting it in place sets a solid example for girls, include his four daughters.
Yes, Venus' infamous hip-bump with Irina Spirlea at the 1997 U.S. Open is addressed, as is the death of her sister Yetunde Price, a stark tragedy and one that shaped the careers and minds of Venus and Serena for quite some time. Both issues are handled swiftly here, lending the bulk of the film's focus to its subject's on-court career, media and entertainment permeation, and battle (from 2005 to 2007) for the same prize money between ATP and WTA counterparts.
This film is the first in the "Nine for IX" series highlighting Title IX champions in that landmark law's 40th-anniversary year. A series of nine documentaries directed by female movie makers will air, continuing through August 27. Venus Vs. and the others are productions by ESPN Film and espnW, this on the heels of ESPN's 30 by 30 series that featured a sit-down conversation between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, titled Unmatched. You can view the Venus Vs. trailer here:
In the end, it's a well-made film. Allusions to a feud between Venus and Lindsay Davenport are never overtly explained, but aside from that, the movie taut, compact, and strong—just like its titular star.
Did you watch its ESPN premiere? What did you think?
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