Venus Williams has been playing tennis since the day she could walk. Three decades later, she’s still one of the world’s best players – but at what cost, asks Janice Turner.
The Williams sisters were excited when their father proposed the family watch Cinderella. “It was unusual,” says Venus, “because we weren’t allowed TV; we could only watch educational programmes. Then afterwards Dad said, ‘What was the most important thing that happened?’ Oh no! There was a catch? It’s like, ‘What’s the right answer?’ Because you’re a kid and you want to make your parents happy …”
So what was the right answer? Venus chuckles. “Well, the most important thing was that Cinderella said to the Fairy Godmother, ‘Thank you so much. This is more than I could have ever asked for.’ ” So not the beautiful gowns or triumph over the Ugly Sisters or winning the prince, but gratitude. “Yes!” Venus laughs loudly. “I don’t think any of us got it.”
That Richard Williams wanted his daughters to grasp the true meaning of this tale is perhaps unsurprising: he had selected it even before they were born as their future life story. Training Venus and her little sister, Serena, on the battered, glass-strewn public courts of Compton, Los Angeles, blagging used tennis balls from the country club, he styled his daughters the “ghetto Cinderellas”. And he was himself an odd kind of Fairy Godfather. When you grow up, he told them, you will be the best players in the world. And so they were …
Venus lopes into a suite at Le Bristol hotel in Paris: 6ft 1in, a Giacometti figure with legs that can cover a baseline in three strides. After a morning on the court, she is low-key, yawning, and even when she has shed her baseball cap and big sunglasses, very hard to read. A lifetime of being interviewed just as you’ve lost a big match must fashion a protective mask. I wonder if she is furious about being here or, as is her reputation, simply measured and reserved. Mainly she talks in sportspeak – Stickle Brick phrases such as “great moment”, “continual process”, “hard experience”. Only when recalling her extraordinary upbringing does she grow fluent and vivid.
We meet a few days before her 20th appearance at the French Open, the most by any woman player (she went out in the fourth round to Timea Bacsinszky). It is three weeks from Venus’s 37th birthday, not that she will celebrate: raised a Jehovah’s Witness, she does not acknowledge birthdays at all. (Did no one ever slip her a cake? “It’s happened, but I can’t remember exactly when.”) But it marks a career of unusual longevity: most top women are retired from singles by 30.
Yet in January at the Australian Open, Venus qualified for the final and pirouetted delightedly around the court. It was her first grand slam final for eight years, and although she lost almost inevitably to Serena, it marked a hard-fought return. The player who won Wimbledon five times and had four Olympic gold medals, but who in 2011 was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition Sjögren’s syndrome, was finally back at the top.
For months, Venus had woken feeling like she was going down with a cold; on court she couldn’t seem to draw enough air; her joints ached. It was a relief when her malaise had a name and a treatment plan. Venus became a vegan, drank green juices and cut out sugar. A pile of requested steamed vegetables awaits her under a cloche, although she sneaks a corner of a club sandwich. She feels too skinny right now. “My goal this year is to put on some weight.” I ask if she craves anything. “A glazed doughnut,” she sighs. “I haven’t had a doughnut in a while. I do love them.”
But when I ask if this regime has lessened her Sjögren’s symptoms, she becomes evasive. “I don’t really talk about it that much. That’s why there’s not a lot of information. My focus is on what I can accomplish and not what I haven’t or can’t … I always see the glass half full.”
Even to give voice to problems is to give them power, to let them chip your confidence. And in tennis, the most gladiatorial non-contact sport, confidence is all. I am reminded of an interview Venus gave aged 14 when she’d just turned professional. A US sports journalist questioned why she was so certain she’d beat her opponent and from the studio shadows came the furious voice of her father: how dare the interviewer make this little black girl question her talent …
“Back in the day,” says Venus, “Dad would have been like Aristotle. He had so many ideas.” It is impossible to tell the Williams sisters’ story without first recounting his. Raised in Louisiana, beaten aged five for the forbidden act of putting money into a white man’s hand, Richard Williams picked cotton and dreamt of escape. When white men called him “n***er” and he refused to address them as mister, they put an iron spike through his leg. He left for Chicago and later California, trying to figure out schemes to raise his family out of poverty.
Then on TV he saw a woman tennis player receive $40,000 for winning a four-day tournament. He decided his as yet unborn daughter would become the greatest tennis star in the world and wrote out a 78-page plan. He deliberately moved the family from a more pleasant suburb to Compton, the roughest district in California – where a decade later the girls’ oldest half-sister, Yetunde, would die in a drive-by shooting – because he wanted Venus to be hungry. Hungry to leave, hungry to win.
Except he had never held a racket in his life and couldn’t afford lessons. So he taught himself from a book, and when Venus could walk, he started teaching her, too. Up to six hours a day, joined by her little sister, Serena. All the while telling them they’d win Wimbledon, the US Open. “If you put in your child that they are they best,” he has said, “they will be the best.”
I ask Venus what she would say to her younger self, just starting out on the professional circuit, and she replies, “I think maybe she could give advice to me. She was fearless. As you get wiser, you can be less fearless. It’s important to keep that raw level of not being afraid of anything.” Does she attribute that fearlessness to her father? “Definitely. It was just a mindset. But when you’re five years old, how do you know the difference?”
And the regime extended far beyond tennis. Richard Williams was determined to eliminate external influences that might weaken his daughters’ characters. Their world was school, family, tennis, church. The girls had few friends. Did she never challenge his plan? “I didn’t think about it. I just went out and practised, did what I was told and didn’t think about the next day. When you’re five or ten years old, you’re just living in the moment. You’re just thinking about the ice-cream truck.”
Did she ever refuse to play? “No!” But sometimes, she says, they’d pretend they had a lot of homework, which was the only excuse he’d allow for finishing practice early. “We hardly ever did it, only every now and then …” Or they’d pretend to be injured. “They never wanted us to play hurt, so we’d say, ‘Dad, I’m hurt,’ to come off the court.” Was he fierce with boyfriends? “Oh, I didn’t have boyfriends,” says Venus. “I really wasn’t thinking about it, thank God! I was really happy. It’s just a distraction – like, at that age, what are you going to do?”
As an outsider, their father reinvented women’s tennis, turned it into a power game: for years Venus held the women’s serve speed record. He introduced boxing, ballet and taekwondo. He famously bussed in a gang of kids to stand around the court shouting insults while they played. He wanted them tough and resilient. Even before their tennis careers had begun, he preached business acumen to maximise their winnings. “He definitely taught us to be independent thinkers and entrepreneurs,” says Venus. “He’d ask us questions like, ‘Why does the rich man get richer and the poor man poorer?’ We would have to answer and no one could say, ‘I don’t know.’ We had to think.”
And yet Richard Williams was controlled rather than pushy: unlike other famous tennis dads, he didn’t force his kids onto the exhausting junior circuit. Did her father shout when she lost? “No, he never did, thank God, because I would have been even more pressured.” What if you had a bad game? “Oh, he’d say, ‘Great match.’ There were only one or two games when he was like, ‘Watch the tape.’ And that was it. It wasn’t fun so I’m glad he didn’t do it every time.” As they grew older, their mother, Oracene, would coach one girl, their father taking the other court. “Dad was very encouraging and Mom was definitely the perfectionist.”
Building these proto-champions in this enclosed, loving but intense environment meant that when Richard finally released his daughters onto the professional tennis tour they breezed in, unfazed, relaxed, treating winning as their birthright. The very first time Venus played in the US Open, aged 17 and unseeded, she reached the final.
The white tennis world, especially in racially divided America, was astonished not just by the Williams sisters’ talent but their confidence. Why weren’t they overawed or humble? As the comedian Chris Rock put it, “They were black-black, not country club black.” With beads in their cornrows, they weren’t masquerading as white girls: they were proud African-Americans. Richard Williams, remembering vicious racism in the Deep South, was ever vigilant to protect them.
Watching clips of the 2001 Indian Wells tournament, it is still shocking to see Venus booed and catcalled as she and her father take their place in the stands. The day before, Venus had pulled out of the semi-final with a knee injury, letting Serena through into the final. So the crowd punished them with racist jeers and, in their home state of California, cheered on the Belgian Kim Clijsters. “It was definitely a hard experience,” says Venus. “It was hardest for Serena, because she had to play and to stay focused. At the end she still thanked the crowd, which was gracious.”
Serena won, but the Williams girls didn’t play the tournament for 14 years and only returned to Indian Wells two years ago. “The crowd were behind me and it’s been wonderful. Everyone at the tournament has let the past go.” Does she think America is still divided by race? Her father has loudly attacked racism in the past, but Venus is more circumspect. “I think the world is a place where we still take advantage of …” She starts but doesn’t finish several sentences. “I would like to be part of the solution, and do my best to speak up if I see something that’s not right,” she says finally.
What does she think of the Black Lives Matter campaign? “Is it a campaign or is it a hashtag? I feel part of Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter.” Are you not a political person? “Like I said, it’s not really a campaign …” Does she try to encourage young black players in what is still an overwhelmingly white game? “To be honest, I don’t see colour.”
She has been outspoken before: in 2007, she was instrumental in getting equal prize money for women players at Wimbledon. I wonder if now she wishes to avoid an energy-sapping social media storm or just upsetting her sponsors. What does she think of President Trump? “I … definitely don’t answer political questions. I want to stay away from that.”
The dynamic between the sisters has been endlessly analysed. Venus quickly had to accept her little sister, younger by 15 months, was the more successful player: she was always ranked 2 to Serena’s No 1. In their 28 matches since 1998, Venus has won 11 times, including only 2 of their 9 grand slam finals. Surely, behind the tournament smiles, pundits speculate, they must hate each other. But in the documentary Venus and Serena, shot during 2011 when each was recovering from injury, we see them living together in Florida – Serena only recently moved out to live with her fiancé, the Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian – supporting each other through treatment, singing karaoke duets, curled up together like kittens.
“Yes, and she’s a great doubles partner,” says Venus. Together they have won 14 grand slams and 3 Olympic golds. “Yes, she’s pretty good. It’s really nice that I don’t have to look for one – I have one automatically.” Can they anticipate each other’s shots? “We definitely need to communicate; you can’t necessarily read minds. But I feel confident no matter what the circumstances that her level of game is going to be there, so I don’t feel like I have to do all the work. And that in itself is enough.”
Raised in their strange, almost cultish bubble, they have always had each other to rely on in a relentless, exhausting peripatetic lifestyle. At the French Open, Venus was supported by an older sister and her mother. When they play each other, relatives have to decide whose box to sit in. “They’re like, ‘This one hasn’t won in a long time.’ I think that’s probably the sentiment. I never thought it was appropriate to ask.”
Serena is now pregnant with her first child. What kind of an auntie does Venus plan to be? “I’ll be the one that teaches tennis.” Does this make her feel broody, too? Venus looks alarmed. “No, not at all.” While Serena, the more flamboyant sister, has had a series of high-profile relationships, Venus – dubbed the quieter homebody – keeps her love life private.
Perhaps because of her family or the strange, lonely business of hitting a tennis ball for many hours a day, she seems unworldly and somehow girlish for 36. She recently bought a dog on a whim. “He’s a havanese called Harold. He was an impulse buy. I just kind of walked out the door one day and it’s like, ‘OK, now I have a dog!’ ” Is he good at travelling? “He’s pretty easy. He gets in his bag; he likes to go everywhere. He’s a little dude.”
And she loves dressing up for the Times shoot. In everyday life, she gets ready in five minutes flat, even for black-tie occasions. “As five sisters going out, we were always waiting for someone – but it was never me.” On the courts she has no vanity. “Everyone teases me because my face is white with sunscreen and they’re like, ‘Could you rub that in?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t really need to. I’m just practising.’ ” But when poured into a sparkly Balmain minidress, she gyrates and throws shapes like a professional model.
What does her father make of her success, now she’s freer from his influence? “Sometimes you see where the young person can’t play tennis without their parent, can’t play tennis with them. But our parents taught us to be independent.” Richard Williams comes to tournaments in Florida where he lives. He’s 75 now and “doesn’t like getting on planes”. A difficult man according to Oracene, they divorced when Venus was in her early twenties.
“Dad is just so gentle now, he gets mellower every year. He doesn’t want us to spend five hours on the court. He says, ‘OK, that’s too much. Come on.’ ” And he now has a five-year-old son with a new wife. “So cute!” says Venus. Is he teaching the boy tennis? She laughs. “No. I think my dad’s done.”