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Venus Williams and the road less traveled
The story of Serena Williams is incomplete without considering everything her sister has—and hasn’t—done alongside.
Published Nov 23, 2022
Venus and Serena Williams have been nearly inseparable for most of their lives. It’s impossible to have a conversation about—or with—either of them without the name of the other popping up within moments. As Rick Macci, the first coach to work steadily with the sisters (other than father Richard Williams) told me at the US Open, “They were like two peas in a pod at 11 and 10, holding hands, sharing snacks, skipping together—and in many ways they’re still like that.”
True enough. But the storied closeness of the Williams sisters now is mostly a matter of their interior lives. Their emotional connection is profound and preeminent, so much so that many observers believed that Serena’s sentimental insistence on playing doubles with Venus at the most recent US Open was a costly mistake (Serena ran out of gas in the third set of what was likely her final Grand Slam singles match). Even if that’s true, it’s a rare example of sisterly love as a liability.
On the outside, and in the areas where the Williams sisters are front-facing, they are very different members of the public forum. They have varied but different avocations and interests. Venus has had a design firm for many years now, Serena is a budding venture capitalist. They engage the world very differently. Serena craves attention, which to Venus has all the appeal of kryptonite. While they share a robust interest in fashion, even their styles and taste couldn’t be more divergent.
Scoff if you will at fashion, but what you wear is the most direct way to signal who you are—or think you are—in a language spoken by all eyes. Serena appeared for her first match in her farewell US Open wearing Nike sneakers encrusted with sparkly diamonds, a black top festooned with sequins, gauzy, transparent, long sleeves, and—what else?—a dramatic black cape. The following night, Venus walked out onto that same Arthur Ashe Stadium court in sleek, understated, emerald green separates (from her own fashion line, EleVen) looking very much like she had just walked out of a post-tennis ladies’ luncheon at the country club.
Having coached scores of gifted junior players, Macci has dealt with plenty of siblings, their parents, and their dreams. Cautionary tales abound.
“The closeness can blow up catastrophically,” Macci said, “Which is a movie we’ve all seen. Credit Richard (Williams) for that not happening.”
But equally credit the daughters, because the once absolute influence of “King Richard” petered out long ago. The pod in which his two precious peas existed ruptured when they became international superstars. Serena plunged into the funhouse of celebrity while Venus, always more reserved, shifted deeper into her role as Serena’s protective big sister (Now 42, Venus is 15 months older than Serena).
Zina Garrison, who at Wimbledon in 1990 became the first Black woman to appear in a Grand Slam singles final since Althea Gibson in 1959, has also been a significant presence in the life of the Williamses, going all the way back to their roots in Compton, Calif.
“I think it was a pretty difficult transition for Venus, as a competitor, from the moment Serena became the first one to win a Grand Slam (at the 1999 US Open),” said Garrison. “But she’s done a great job.
“Venus kind of separated from everybody a little bit. Even now when I see her, she’s just like “Oh, hi.’ Sometimes she seems happy, other times she’s subdued. I think she made a decision to enhance the big sister role and really focus on doing her own thing.”
So, while Serena took off running on the road to fame and fortune, Venus chose a path less taken.
The tennis record of Venus Williams speaks for itself. In a world where not everybody can be 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams, Venus has racked up seven major singles titles (five at Wimbledon, two at the US Open), easily surpassing other stars including Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati.
Among other achievements, Venus also partnered with Serena to compile a perfect, 14–0 record in Grand Slam doubles finals. She won five Olympic medals, four gold—one in singles and three as Serena’s doubles partner.
“If the sisters had played all the doubles,” Macci said, “they could have won 60 majors, then add mixed doubles. . . but you have to eat and sleep, too, right?”
Venus, who also held the No. 1 ranking for 11 weeks during one of the most fertile periods in WTA history, arguably is the second-best player in the “Serena era.” Only Justine Henin, who also won seven majors, is in the same league, And Venus accomplished all of that while remaining faithful to her original lifelong as Serena’s “protector,” a first-responder whenever Serena was in need of aid.
That role became significantly more complicated when the women, in the blink of an eye, not only became contenders but rivals at the peak of the game. They met for the first time in a Grand Slam final at the 2001 US Open, barely two years after Serena broke the ice with a title at Flushing Meadows. The development was so extraordinary that the USTA and the CBS network scheduled the sport’s first prime-time women’s US Open final.
For the first but not the last time, the match failed to live up to the hype. Venus, in the midst of the most productive period of her career, won, 6–2, 6–4. It was her fourth championship of the past six majors. Serena later reported that during the handshake at the net, Venus told that she didn’t really feel like she’d won.
“She said she always wanted to, you know, kind of protect me,” Serena said, I told her, ‘Well, you won. Take it. You know, it’s your win. It’s your victory.’”
Venus’ guilt was misplaced, for her insouciant sister was already unfazed by what many saw as a psychic nightmare for the sisters. She said, “It’s definitely become a lot easier for me after the first time [we played]. Overall, it’s definitely easy. I really have no problem any more.”
Yet people continually made much of the fact that so many of the sisters’ 31 meetings were duds. (Only two of their first 10 matches went three sets.) Macci’s take on that is simple, and convincing: “The reason none of those matches was must-see TV is only because neither Venus nor Serena could go for the jugular. It wasn’t like going up against a Hingis, or a Sharapova, where they just wanted to terminate.”
At the outset of their careers, most of the attention was on Venus. But Serena soon flipped the script. As Serena’s reputation and record burgeoned, the combination of Venus’ introverted personality, her role in
Serena’s life, and her aversion to the limelight suggested that she was resigned to her role as “second sister.”
But there are other, tangible reasons for why Venus won “only” seven majors. Although she’s a lean 6’1” with long limbs, Venus drifted away from an attacking style that enabled her to smother the net and make lobbing her a perilous enterprise. Macci and others are of the opinion that the original, razor-sharp game of teenage Venus lost some of its edge.
“When Venus played [Arantxa] Sanchez-Vicario in her debut pro match, she came to the net 33 times,” Macci said. “She played [Jana] Novotna at Wimbledon and came in 35 times. She would routinely jack a second-serve return up the line and come to net. She was like a praying mantis. Any time you were off balance she was at the net. There was no one else like her.”
Macci believes that when Venus joined the tour she began to rely less on the aggressive, explosive style of her youth and more on the rally game. He believes she was lulled into a “scrap and fight” baseline game similar to that of Davenport or Capriati. Over time, inconsistency also crept into her game, her second serve became more vulnerable, and her strokes sometimes looked in need of tuning. None of which had anything to do with her relationship with Serena.
“Venus is not wired to take the back seat,” Macci said. “I just think Serena put her foot on the gas and never looked back. I don’t think Venus “accepted” anything, it just may have come across that way because of the sister dynamic.
“But remember, nobody beat Serena more than Venus did (Serena won their head to-head series 19–12). If there were no Serena, we might be sitting here talking about Venus and her 30 Grand Slam titles.”
Garrison was in the locker room in Oakland, Calif. in 1994, shortly after Venus, still just 14 years old, lost her second-round match to Sanchez-Vicario. A WTA Tour official entered and asked Venus to accompany her to the interview room to chat with reporters. Venus balked, and the lady asked if Zina if she would help.
“Venus told me that her father Richard had warned the sisters not to talk to anyone but me and my friend and frequent doubles partner, Lori McNeil,” Garrison recalled. “So I had to run out to find Richard and explain that they were obliged to do the interviews and all that.”
Serena was too enamored of attention to be reticent, or to embrace Richard’s understandable, early-stage mistrust of nearly everyone. But his attitude seemed to rub off on Venus, who bears a lifelong mistrust of the media. Post-match press conferences are obligatory on the tour, but no matter how legitimate or compelling the question lobbed at Venus is, or how sincere the reporter, she crushes it the way she buries a sitter overhead. Her comments are usually brief and opaque, her visage a stony mask. The tendency took root early.
When Serena avenged her loss to Venus in the 2001 US Open final the following year, Venus’ reaction was muted. Asked if she had been enjoying tennis as much as ever, she replied: “I just had to tune out everything. People just wear you to death, and talk so much. This and that. I just wanted to get away from the hype.”
Venus’ distaste for hype is more feature than glitch. Shortly after her first-round singles loss at the 2022 US Open, she was asked an innocuous question about “evolving”—to use Serena’s code-word for “retirement”—away from tennis.
She replied: “Right now, I’m just focused on the doubles [tomorrow night].”
Reporters eventually pried her tongue loose, though, and she said of her history at the American Grand Slam tournament: “I just love being here, love playing here, the excitement of getting here, and the lead-up is all just—it never gets old. It’s so sweet.”
That sounded more like the Venus Williams that the public holds in high esteem. She earned that affection with the dignity and poise she has shown all along, and especially with her role in Serena’s life. Venus also won over an enormous number of fans in 2005 and 2006 with efforts driven to convince equal-prize money holdouts Wimbledon and the French Open to reward men and women with the same round-by-round payouts.
The turning point after a glut of meetings over two years is thought to be an opinion piece written by Williams, published in The Times [of London] on the eve of the 2006 Championships. Tony Blair, British Prime Minister at the time, and Parliament endorsed Williams’ arguments. In February 2006, Wimbledon capitulated, with the French Open following suit within 24 hours.
In the wake of the announcements, Venus told the Chicago Sun-Times: “Somewhere in the world a little girl is dreaming of holding a giant trophy in her hands and being viewed as an equal to boys who have similar dreams.”
The end in tennis is not here yet for Venus, but it may be near. Her competitive zeal is undiminished—at the US Open she said she was motivated by three letters: “W-I-N. That’s it. Very simple.”
But the wins have been in short supply as she struggled this summer to find her game after taking most of a year off. She played just four matches (through the US Open) in 2022 and lost them all.
“Whenever Venus decides she’s not going to play tennis anymore, she’ll do it her way,” Eric Hechtman, who coaches both Williams sisters, told the New York Times after their loss in the first round of doubles. “People might say in their minds she got lost in the shuffle here, but whatever way she does it is the way she wants to do it.
“They (Venus and Serena) are different people with different objectives, both staying true to who they are.”
True to herself, Serena basked in the adulation of the US Open crowd right through the bittersweet end in September. She wrapped up her emotional, thankful on-court remarks after she lost by saying: “I wouldn’t be Serena if it wasn’t for Venus. She’s the only reason Serena ever existed.”
Well, maybe not the only reason. But Serena’s success owes partly to the way Venus navigated the challenge faced by a family with two legitimate, Hall of Fame prodigies, in a sport made to accommodate just one.