Fan Club: Venus Williams, Part II
As a purple-haired Venus Williams takes the court for her 15th U.S. Open, here's Part II of my talk with one of her fans, Bobby Chintapalli. (You can read Part I here.) Bobby writes regularly about tennis for USA Today.
I think you said it all about why you love Venus in your first post. Maybe there's something you relate to as an older sister. I have a sister who is three years younger than I am, so even though she played tennis, there was never really any direct athletic competition. I don't think we ever played a set. But I do remember the first time I watched her play a match; I had no idea I would be that nervous. It was much more intense than watching any of my favorite pros—your instinct is to want to help.
Do you think Venus has changed over the years? I feel like as the Grand Slam finals have gotten farther away, she has become more open and easy going, with an easier smile, even though she's not winning as much. People may forget, but she really led the way as far as how competitive and confident the Williams sisters were. I can remember watching the young Venus, in 1999, losing to Steffi Graf in a really good three-setter at Wimbledon. Most young players—she was 19 or 20—would have been at least slightly pleased to have pushed a 22-time Slam champion to the brink. Not Venus. It looked like she thought it was the worst loss of her career. That was the attitude that took both of the sisters to the top. Even though Venus credits Serena with inspiring her, and her father with brainwashing her, it was Venus who invented that attitude. You can't teach that mindset. In that sense, I think Venus has a small part in all of Serena's Slams as well.
Bobby, I'll finish by asking if you have any new, post-Venus favorites. It's hard to imagine her having any successors.
Venus has changed over the years. I see that too. On court of course the results tell the story of this seven-time major winner who won her last major five years ago. Off court she’s more easygoing, yes, and also more approachable.
Short, opaque answers, for example, are now uncommon in her press conferences. In Cincinnati a few weeks ago Venus answered a question about crowd support. “It felt nice,” she said. “When I’d lose a point, the crowd would be like, Oh.” Except “oh” was “ooohhhhhh” to convey the crowd’s disappointment and empathy. Venus went on. “Me too—that’s how I feel,” she said, elongating those words also, slouching down, smiling but speaking more loudly. She said it like she meant it, like she did hurt about losing that point. Yet another small revelation for a Venus fan—Venus hurts about Venus losing a point too. Sometimes we Venus fans wonder. These days we can wonder a little less, as she lets us in a little more.
In some ways Venus has become more restrained. Her post-match celebration, for one thing, is more muted. When she beat Lindsay Davenport in the 2000 U.S. Open final, Venus threw her hands in the air as she walked to the net, jumped or twirled afterwards. They were joyful reactions by a woman who worked so long to do what she just did, but they were replaced in later years by quieter celebrations. By the 2008 Wimbledon final, where Venus beat Serena, she barely celebrated at all.
I’m not sure if the changes are conscious. Some, like the muted celebrations, perhaps are. And who knows why. Maybe it’s the years or experiences, like the 2003 murder of her sister Yetunde, maybe it’s seeing fans react so warmly to her these days or fighting Sjogren’s Syndrome and not simply Serena, Davenport, and Martina Hingis across the net.
Speaking of other players, no, I don’t have post-Venus favorites. I may find myself rooting for someone mid-match, because she’s a veteran or underdog or something else, but I don’t tune in knowing I’ll root. Frankly I’m glad, because then I can watch for the love of the point and cheer for quality regardless of result.
With Venus I can’t choose. Even if I try I can’t look away, I can’t not root. Not when things are good—and they were so good for so long—and not when things are bad. I lower the volume when she’s making errors near the end, feel proud when she’s serving bombs, feel it without intending to or even realizing it. I can’t choose, because you don’t choose. The ones you really root for, they choose you. Which of course is what happened with Venus Ebony Starr Williams, as she refers to herself from time to time. Venus chose me.