Leading With Love: At 39, Venus Williams still commands respect

Leading With Love: At 39, Venus Williams still commands respect

After first-round losses at Roland Garros (to ninth-seeded Elina Svitolina) and Wimbledon (to 15-year-old Cori Gauff), Venus will look for a turnaround in Flushing Meadows, and an improvement on last year’s third-round finish—a loss to her sister Serena.

The stage is now hers to take. Except today, in place of a bursting Centre Court full of cheers and claps, is a room of about 15 serious, steady faces. Most of these formidable figures are unlike her on the outside: they are white, they are older, and they are male. 

She paints the only mutual canvas they know, instructing each person to close their eyes and imagine
being nine again. She tells them a tale: a little girl dreams of playing in the Wimbledon ladies’ final. She makes this pursuit her only priority, but one day discovers her persistent work to become a Grand Slam champion is not valued equally to the boys training on the next court over. She ponders this message being sent to every girl chasing their ambitions, in tennis and all walks of life, and why those in today’s room agree with that imbalanced notion. 

A profound connection is made. Finished visualizing, reality promptly stands tall in front. Venus Williams has preached her wisdom and shared her story, but now must focus over the next 24 hours to make her desire of winning a third Wimbledon singles title come true. The usually immovable members are touched. As the quiet leader exits, the impact she leaves behind is deafening. 

For more than 20 years, Williams has been, and remains, a fundamental fixture in the WTA, with her racquet and point of view. She’s not the most outspoken player; she keeps to herself; she is “protective,” according to younger sister Serena; she likes to laugh; she’s glowingly graceful and reverently respected. But when Williams has an opinion, her words carry the weight of her shots. 

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When she believes in a cause, her passion controls the baseline for change. A frequently elected member of the WTA players’ council, a voluntary position Williams still serves today, it’s no surprise that two years after her inspiring speech to the Grand Slam Committee on that Friday in 2005, Wimbledon made the decision to offer equal prize money. Roland Garros wasn’t far behind in joining its three major counterparts.

“Most players never put themselves on the line for anything other than their forehand or backhand. That can’t be said for Venus,” Billie Jean King says. “She is a quiet leader.”

“Venus is the kind of person you don’t think is listening—and two months later, she brings up what you were saying. And you go, ‘Oh my goodness, she wasn’t just listening, she was really listening.’ She likes to go away and process before having a conversation. Her brain is always going. People misinterpret that as being disassociated. That’s not true. She’s very observant and absolutely loves her sport.” 

Her trophy case exhibits one side of that love: five Wimbledon titles, two US Open titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, a Fed Cup and five Olympic medals—four of them gold. Williams has played on every bucket-list tennis court, been ranked No. 1 in singles and doubles, connected globally with her adoring fans, and defeated some of her sport’s greatest players—Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Justine Henin and Serena, to name just a few. 

In a career that took off at the 1997 US Open—where Williams became the first unseeded player in the Open era to reach a major final—the ecstasy of competing has kept her in the gym, running through drill after drill and beating the odds against Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain (Williams publicly shared her diagnosis after withdrawing from the 2011 US Open).

Serena and Venus met in the 2001 and 2002 US Open finals, with Venus winning the latter contest, 6-2, 6-4. (Getty Images)

Says Lindsay Davenport, who was edged out by Williams, 4–6, 7–6 (4), 9–7, in an extraordinary 2005 Wimbledon final, and finished with a 14–13 edge in their head-to-head series:

“The only way you can be a high-level athlete [at 39] is if you love it, and if you have that drive to want to keep improving and still be on the big stage. She’s always had that. She’s always had a love for the game. That’s often what pushes athletes out: you realize you don’t have it in you to give 100 percent. We’re so fortunate that has not been the case with Venus.”

When a new generation emerges, experienced players must adapt to evolving competitors who are often quicker, stronger and feistier. Prominent champions are trailed by these voracious hunters looking for conquests to pad their resumes. Williams often finds herself battling athletes who have exhausted substantially fewer miles, but her tires continue to hold their tread, thanks to a sharper perception on when to hit the gas, and when to conserve her fuel.

“Venus has a better understanding of the game, so she’s more tactical than she used to be,” says Martina Navratilova. “She also knows the big moments—those big points when she needs to button up and not miss.

“She always makes the other player hit another shot. She’s tamed her game. The points last longer because she picks her spots better. I think she’s cut out silly mistakes and really learned her lessons on how to play percentages better.”

Davenport subscribes to Navratilova’s assessment, adding, “I feel like she’s a much smarter player. Much more mature. She’s obviously not as fast as she once was, as athleticism is different every decade that you age. But she’s improved her forehand, as well as her court awareness. 

“Most players are not able to play into their late 30s, so you don’t see that side of them. We are in this generation, with Roger Federer, Serena and Venus. There’s no question Venus is a better tennis player than she was earlier in her career.”

When Williams’ ranking began to slide in 2011, many began to count out the veteran. But in 2015 she re-entered the Top 10 for the first time in nearly five years; a year later, she reached the semifinals of Wimbledon. (Getty Images)

At 39, it’s remarkable to watch Williams carry on competing, and winning, in the top echelon of her sport. Through May 2019, the Compton, CA-raised and Palm Beach Gardens, FL resident has beaten the likes of Petra Kvitova, Daria Kasatkina, Elise Mertens and Victoria Azarenka. And as she’s shown from Day 1, Williams has done it by letting her game do the talking. There are no racquet smashes, or quarrels with spectators, or inquiries of gamesmanship from opponents. Her advocacy for fair play is a quality that goes hand in hand with her reserved, judicious manner of living.

“You could probably count on one hand how many times she’s exchanged words with an umpire,” Davenport says. “She’s always so fair, quiet and accepting a lot of times of stuff that’s happening on court. You know when Venus argues a call, she feels strongly about it. She has been an exemplary role model for her entire career with her on-court behavior.”

It’s no secret that the primary objective on court for Williams is to factor into the conversation at major tournaments. With 128 players vying for one piece of Grand Slam hardware, fields are that much deeper. Everybody shows up with an intent to win at any cost. Many may feel the road to lifting a major trophy is more difficult than at a weekly tour event, but King, who reached the 1983 Wimbledon semifinals when she was 39, believes a tournament such as the US Open swings in favor of an older player like Williams.

“You have more time off. You get rest every other day, especially if you don’t play doubles. The main difference is all the top talent comes together for one event. As you get older, you have to believe you can still do it. That’s the most important thing. 

“Look at Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open,” King continues. “He played his heart out thinking he had a chance. The mindset must be that your 90 percent is still good enough to win if I stay focused and play at my best, and I believe I will be going to the net shaking hands winning. It’s tougher today because the talent pool is deeper. You have to stay in the now like crazy. Venus can do that.” 

The American star did even better in 2017, reaching two Grand Slam finals as well as the season-ending championships, and finishing the season at No. 5. (Getty Images)

For Davenport, Williams’ prospects come down to her former rival’s body holding up. Will Williams enter with any physical limitations? Does her footwork appear sprightly in practice? Is she able to locate her targets on serve? The answer to those questions will influence her chances in New York.

“She’s battled knee, elbow and arm injuries this year. It’s affected two of her biggest attributes: her serve and movement. Those have been missing,” Davenport says. “I would love to see her play as close to 100 percent physically as possible. That hasn’t been the case for her. She needs that. She has the crowd support behind her in New York and the right attitude. She just has to be healthy.” 

It was only two years ago when Williams found herself two points away from defeating eventual champion Sloane Stephens, 13 years her junior, in the US Open semifinals. The trailblazer has proven before that age is just another numerical measurement in her biography. Though stiff opposition lies ahead for Williams, the quiet leader should be resoundingly ready to reach for her New York dream.

“When Venus gets on the court, she’s a lion,” Navratilova says. “If she’s rested, she can beat anybody.”