Fan Club: Venus Williams
The Fan Club returns this weekend in honor of a former U.S. Open champion who will be making her 15th appearance in Flushing Meadows next week, Venus Williams. I'm talking about the unique appeal of Venus with Bobby Chintapalli, a freelance tennis writer who contributes regularly to USA Today. We'll have Part II tomorrow.
This is something of a bittersweet Fan Club. It's been two years since Venus announced that she has Sjogren's Syndrome at the Open in 2011, and while she has carried on with her career valiantly, she's not the feared player that she once was. Every time Venus, who is now 33, loses at a tournament, it feels to me like it could be the last time we see her play. Until you listen to her talk, of course; she makes it sound like she's just getting started.
It has been a while since Venus' breakthrough tournament, which came when she reached the U.S. Open final all the way back in 1997. Do you have a first memory of seeing Venus play? I first remember her, with her father and sister, on 60 Minutes in the early 90s, practicing in Compton. It seemed to most people then that the Williams sisters were a great dream for tennis, but that the chances of them fulfilling their father's prophecy of dominance were pretty slim. Parents with dreams are a dime a dozen, but the Williams family proved to be the exception—twice. I think everyone began to believe when Venus won a few pro matches as a 14-year-old. I'm not even sure, for all of his bluster, that Richard himself truly believed his own words until then.
In those days, Venus was the star of the show. She, rather than the "Williams sisters," was what people talked about. She was the older one, the taller one, the more athletic-looking one, the one with the memorable name. Serena, of course, has always said that she used that fact as competitive fuel—the self-described "ugly duckling" wanted everything her "fierce swan" older sister had. And she got it. Which is another reason to feel for Venus, in a way. Her little sister, the one she looked after, ended up with the glory that was supposed to hers. But Venus has never shown any resentment about that. There are a lot of reasons to be a Venus fan, in other words. As she said last year, after years of pulling for other American women, even the crowds at the U.S. Open have come around to her.
What drew you to Venus, as opposed to Serena? Was that always the case, from the time they started, even before the younger sister surpassed the older? I'm not sure who I root for more—I always liked Venus, but I've come to like and appreciate Serena just as much. One thing about Venus that I love: How stony and stoical she keeps herself throughout a match, and how she turns into a giddy, twirling little girl when she wins. Makes me want to see her win more.
Bittersweet is right. Honestly I’d rather root for someone on her way up, a player who’s winning one Wimbledon after another all the way to five titles, instead of one who’s losing consecutive matches to Elena Vesnina. No offense to Vesnina, a good player with a lovely personality, but she’s no Venus Williams. The problem of course is that this Venus Williams is not quite Venus Williams either. Not the Venus who won four gold medals, 23 doubles titles, 44 singles titles and more singles matches than anyone playing right now.
Yet I root for Venus because you can’t help who you love, and once you do you don’t just leave when times are tough.
I can’t say I have an earliest memory of Venus, but my most vivid memories of her are in green and white. Of Venus in some white dress or other, clutching the Venus Rosewater Dish, beaming and twirling on Wimbledon’s green grass, where she seemed most comfortable and powerful. It always struck me as equal parts odd and gratifying that this woman who grew up on mediocre public courts in Compton grew so dominant on manicured lawns at the most traditional tennis tournament in the world.
I don’t recall when I first took note of Venus, but I know the young Venus footage I like best. It’s from a Trans World Sport profile of Venus and Serena at ages 11 and 12. In one scene the sisters are standing by a court, all shy and attentive, with Venus towering over Serena. “What do you think is the best part of your game?” the interviewer asks. Excitedly both sisters start to answer, and when they realize it, they both stop. Venus turns to her little sister and says softly, “Go ahead. You wanted to go?” Serena whispers back a quick “go” and only then does Venus continue.
Now the Serena thing. I don’t enjoy comparing sisters. As one of three sisters myself I’ve generally found comparisons unnecessary, unhelpful, even crass. Yet how can you not, especially here? In answer to your question, Steve, from the start everything drew me to Venus. Everything, that is, but the tennis. Serena’s game is just better, as time has made clearer. This doesn’t change the fact that Venus is impressive too, a legend herself. You’re right that Venus never seemed to resent Serena’s success, even when it came at her expense. As an older sister to accomplished, confident younger sisters who run way faster than I do, I know emotions are complicated things. But they can be simple, too. When you care about your sister and see she cares back, it’s not really you versus your sister. If the “versus” must be there then it’s both of you versus the rest. Unless you’re Margaret Court, some woman will always win more Slams, so why not your little sister instead of Martina Hingis and Suzanne Lenglen?
And really, Venus and Serena are two sides of the same coin: Partly who they are because of each other. Venus has to be Venus because Serena is Serena, and Serena can be Serena because Venus is Venus.
I respect Serena, but I don’t have the same warmth for her I’ve always had for Venus. My affinity for Venus has less to do with her serve, backhand and reach—though I love all that too—and more with how she carries herself: As sister, as elder stateswoman of the women’s tour, as equal prize money advocate, as competitor who doesn’t show the score on her face. Maybe it’s from my perspective as older sister, or “mini-feminist” as someone called me recently. I can’t adequately describe my affection for Venus even though, or perhaps because, I feel it with all the force of a 129 M.P.H. serve.