Venus Williams embodies a perfect blend of grace, power, grit, and self-belief. She is 34 now, 6 years removed from her last Grand Slam title, but Venus appears more motivated than ever. It's been 20 years since she first graced the WTA stage, two lifetimes for most tennis players, yet Venus is not finished. When she told us of her goal to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games, I suspect most brushed her aside as delusional. But, after a solid 2014 campaign, Venus is inching back toward the top-10. Her journey over the past two decades, fuelled by a no excuse attitude and steely determination, sees her now in the position of beloved, and still relevant, Grande Dame of the WTA Tour.
This wasn't always the case.
Venus was a child prodigy burdened with the expectations of a father who foretold her greatness from a tender age. That she was black, from Compton, and had a sister following in her footsteps made her story all the more improbable. The Williams family didn't do things by the book, and they cared little about what you thought of them. From the start, Venus played tennis her own way. She wore beads in her hair that clacked as she uncorked almighty forehands. She was tall, lean, and powerful. She was a visual affront to the tennis establishment. The tennis world had seen precocious teen champions before - Venus arrived at the same time as Martina Hingis - but she was different from the rest.
Her presence. Her wingspan. Her power. Her confidence.
It's clear now that tennis fans and pundits didn't know what to make of Venus. Her supreme confidence and sense of destiny were perceived as brash and arrogant. That famous Williams nonconformist streak alienated many potential fans. Venus' example carved a path for Serena to capture Grand Slam glory before big sister could. While Venus was first to number 1, she would cede the spotlight to her more talented sister. Venus was Serena's opponent in each of her four victories during the "Serena Slam," all straight-set affairs. The sibling dynamic in that highest pressure sporting spotlight is one us common-folk will never understand. Yet, Venus bore those losses with enviable grace, always wearing a smile in support of her sister's greatness. Perhaps those losses to Serena helped change the public's perception of Venus, and made her a more relatable figure.
Through it all, Venus became a champion for the ages in her own right. She succeeded, in spite of the pressure and resistance, to become a 7-time Grand Slam singles champion, adding 13 more in women's doubles. Her game, in full flight, is one of the most aesthetically pleasing sights in all of sport. More impressively, Venus managed to create a legacy on tour apart from her titles and Slam wins. She agitated for equal prize money at her beloved Wimbledon. She won the respect of her peers and tennis fans while pioneering change behind the scenes. The precocious teen who threatened to upend the game in the 90's blossomed into an accomplished woman who secured the admiration of many. By 2010, Venus had contested 8 of the previous 11 Wimbledon finals, winning 5. She was 30 years old and finished the year ranked fifth in the world.
Then it all went south for Venus.
She struggled with form while often appearing lethargic on court, suffering a string of peculiar losses. By the time she arrived at the U.S. Open in 2011, she was unseeded and a shadow of the player she was during her semifinal run the year before. She withdrew from the tournament in the second round and announced she had been diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue. Her ranking subsequently plummeted and she dealt with a spate of other injuries. All the while, Venus made no excuses for her poor results. She resolved not to use her illness as a scapegoat for her lacklustre performances. Instead, she embarked on a years-long journey to rediscover her best tennis, a new version of her best self.
Venus' return to form began, in earnest, with a semifinal showing in Tokyo last year. During that week, she turned back Azarenka, Halep, and Bouchard, before succumbing in three sets to Petra Kvitova - a fantastic result by any metric. Yet, we had seen glimpses of vintage Venus before, and there was no telling if Tokyo was "lightning in a bottle" or a sign of bigger things to come. Days later, Venus lost feebly to Sabine Lisicki in Beijing and disappeared until Auckland 2014. A finals run in Auckland was followed with a title in Dubai, her first in two years and one which featured wins over five players ranked no lower than #33.
Then Wimbledon happened.
This was the moment when I felt, with certainty, that a full return to form was possible. Her third round loss to eventual champion Kvitova (5-7 7-6 7-5) was easily the best match of the tournament. It was vintage Venus - dominant on serve and crisp off the ground. Watching that match, one got the sense that if she were able to sneak by Petra, she could make a deep run at the title. She played tennis like we remembered. This was the Venus who we only had access to on YouTube for the past few years. Venus was scorching the lawns of the All England Club and tennis was, once again, as it should be.
The 2014 Rogers Cup in Montreal was a breakthrough for Venus. Her low ranking has meant consistently tough draws at big events, and this was no different. She bested Angelique Kerber and Carla Suarez-Navarro to book a 25th meeting with sister Serena in the semifinals. Venus hadn't beaten Serena since 2009 and didn't figure to have the requisite consistency from the ground to trouble the world number one. After playing well in the first set but still losing a tiebreak, the prospect of a Venus win looked remote. But, with a Wimbledon-esque precision, she lifted her game to win the next two sets comfortably. Venus would lose to Aga Radwanska in the final, but she had strung together an entire week's worth of top notch tennis. With her run to the final, Williams also secured a return to the WTA top-20.
After beating Serena, Venus answered a few questions in her press conference that shed some light on where she is today:
In response to what her regimen looks like in coping with Sjogren's Syndrome:
Writers have wasted considerable ink over the years bemoaning Venus' (and Serena's) playing schedule, imploring her to commit less to "outside interests" and more to her tennis career. Now, the tennis world seems to finally accept that Venus has always - and will continue to - do things on her own terms. Her comments in Montreal tell us that she is invested in her journey, concerned only with her own game. How we compare her to others, including Serena, is of little interest to her. The joy she gleans from being on court and competing well - the fruit of her persistence - is worth more to her than having her name in the headlines. She has always had her self-belief; it is what carried her at the start of her career, and especially during her darkest days battling illness and injury.
Most athletes would have retired long ago. Faced with repeated losses to players with a fraction of her talent, other athletes would have moved on to a second career by now. Venus had won 7 Grand Slam titles, ascended to world #1, and become a trailblazing icon. She had nothing to prove to anybody but herself. Instead, she embarked on a period of self-discovery, allowing the world to see her struggle, and appear a shadow of her best self . But, she stayed the course, believing that better days would emerge. She ignored those calling for retirement, and did things on her own terms. She owned her journey, accountable only to herself. Now that she's emerged on the brighter side of that battle, the credit lay all at her feet. She orchestrated her return from an unknown abyss, and we can only sit in awe as she climbs her way back up the mountain.