Venus Williams, by all outward appearances, is the most unflappable of tennis players. Unlike her theatrically demonstrative younger sister, Serena, Venus doesn’t beat her opponents with fist pumps, stare downs or exultations. She uses something equally as daunting: a majestically stony game face that nothing can dislodge.

Well, almost nothing. Even after 20 demanding years on tour, there is one tennis-related topic that can make this 36-year-old veteran break into a mile-wide smile and giggle with the uncontrollable enthusiasm of a girl half her age: the Olympic Games.

Sixteen years after making her Olympic debut at age 20 in Sydney, Williams still describes the experience of playing for her country as “the pinnacle of my career,” and her four gold medals as “icing on the cake with a cherry on top.” The last time she played the Games, in 2012, it took some time before the normally reserved Venus could stop gushing.

“The Olympics was so great for me,” Venus said three weeks later. “To win [the doubles gold, with Serena] again, I really felt like it was the best moment of my career. Just felt amazing. Still very giddy about it.

“I don’t think it really started sinking in until the next day. I was walking through the airport, like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I just felt so emotional. I’m by myself looking like a teary nut.”

Venus wasn’t done talking about the Olympics; she never is. Asked where she stashes her gold medals, she brought up her favorite pastime at the Games: trading souvenir flag pins with other athletes.

“I have a pin bag dating back to 2000,” she said. “I keep a pin collection.”

Then she stopped and looked around the room; the tennis media, she realized, had heard her tell this story a few times before.

“I guess you all know that I collect pins,” she said, as the room broke up in laughter.

“I think eventually when my career is over,” Venus said of her pin bag, “maybe I’ll make something cool [out of it]. But for now I feel like I’m still adding.”

Tennis has always been Venus’ life, but it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the opportunity to play tennis at the Olympics has added a significant number of years to her career. Age, injury, illness, the rise of her sister, the decline of her own once-dominant game, the daily grind of the tour: She’s survived it all by keeping her next trip to the Games front and center in her mind.


For the Love of the Games: Venus to play record fifth Olympic tennis event in Rio

For the Love of the Games: Venus to play record fifth Olympic tennis event in Rio

After losing early at the 2004 Games in Athens, she vowed to return in Beijing in 2008. That might have been a logical stopping point for most 12-year tour veterans, but not for Venus. In 2007, as The Sun reported, she “delivered a shock warning to her rivals by insisting she plans to stay around until the London Olympics in 2012.”

In 2011, Venus announced that she was suffering from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an incurable immune condition that often leaves her fatigued. When her ranking fell to No. 134, many believed her retirement was imminent, but Venus found strength in the Olympic spirit again.

“When I don’t want to get up, or I want to do something different,” she said in the spring of 2012, as she fought to qualify for the American team, “I think about the Olympics and how if I don’t do the right thing, I might not be there. That keeps me on the straight and narrow.”

Four years later, Venus is still on that straight and narrow. This time her dedication has given her a chance to make history in Rio. If she qualifies for the four-woman team—she's currently the second-ranked American, behind her sister—Venus will become the first tennis player to compete in five Olympic Games.

One potential teammate, Sloane Stephens—who was 7 years old when Venus won gold in Sydney—is suitably awed by the achievement.

“Venus is a beast,” Stephens told The Post and Courier this spring. “For me to play in one Olympics, that would totally be fine. But for her to play in five, that’s like... I don’t even know. She’s not even human.”

Madison Keys, who was 5 years old in 2000, says that being a part of Venus’ fifth Olympics is one of the reasons she’s driven to make the United States team.

For Venus, who is used to the solo tour life, the Games are a place for camaraderie as well as competition.

“It’s about the lifelong friends that you make that you didn’t necessarily know,” Venus has said. “That’s what the Olympics is about, bringing people together that you never get to meet.”

Still, competition, rather than camaraderie, has always been her first priority. She’s never found time to attend another Olympic event.

“In Beijing,” she said, “they had the archery across the street. I wanted to go so bad and be a part of it.”

Venus was groomed to be a pro and compete for her own glory, but in 2000 she was happy to be immersed in the youthful exuberance of the Olympics, and to play for something greater than herself. In turn, she helped imbue the tennis competition with an amateur spirit.


For the Love of the Games: Venus to play record fifth Olympic tennis event in Rio

For the Love of the Games: Venus to play record fifth Olympic tennis event in Rio

You could see it most clearly when Venus and Serena won doubles gold in Sydney. After Serena slammed home an overhead on match point, the sisters tossed their racquets in the air, stumbled into each other’s arms in a delirious hug and circled the court waving U.S. flags. Today, all medal-winning players celebrate the same way, as if they’ve reached the pinnacles of their careers.

When Venus and Serena circled the court that day, perhaps the proudest member of their family was their father, Richard. Whenever Venus is asked where she learned to love the Games, she cites his influence.

“The reason I played the Olympics was my dad,” Venus has said. “He always wanted us to play. He always thought it was special.”

Richard Williams grew up in Louisiana, in the segregated South of the 1940s and ’50s. In his autobiography, Black and White, he wrote about how, when Venus was born, he feared that she “was going to go through all the prejudice I went through” in the United States.

Does this make his love of the Olympics, the most nationalistic sporting event, a surprise? It may be reminiscent of the love that Arthur Ashe, another African-American raised in the South in that era, had for Davis Cup.

“Segregation and racism had me loathe aspects of the white South, but had left me scarcely less of a patriot,” Ashe said. “In fact, to me and my family, winning a place on our national team would mark my ultimate triumph over all those people who had opposed my career.”

In 2001, when Venus was infamously booed by fans at Indian Wells, Richard’s thoughts went straight to Venus’ accomplishments of the previous year.

“Did they realize they were insulting an American champion who had won the US Open and successfully represented her country in the 2000 Olympics?” he wrote in his book.

This year, Venus returned to Indian Wells for the first time since that incident and was greeted with a standing ovation. In the intervening years, she and Serena have helped make tennis in this country more diverse. With Serena, Venus, Keys and Stephens, the U.S. could send a women’s team to Rio led by four African-Americans.

While Venus still gets giddy when she talks about the Games, she knows that the value of the experience goes far deeper than her pin collection. A month after winning her fourth gold in 2012, she lost a night match at the US Open in front of a packed house that cheered loudly for her. While Venus was disappointed, she had won something just as important from the fans.

“This is the first time I’ve ever played here that the crowd has been behind me like that,” Venus said. “Today I felt American, you know, for the first time at the US Open. I’ve waited my career to have that feeling, and here it is.

“It felt like winning gold.”

Now, after four Olympic trips, Venus still has at least one more goal in Rio. She’s never had a chance to attend the closing ceremonies.

“It would be a dream of mine,” she said this spring.

Would it also mark the closing of her career? Don’t bet on it. The 2020 Games are only four years away.