I was 11 years old when I was first introduced to Venus and Serena Williams. I was watching 60 Minutes with my mother, like all 11-year-olds do, and I saw a segment on them. They were 16 and 17 at the time, with a plethora of beads in their hair and mouths full of braces. They laughed often, wore oversized nondescript t-shirts, and obviously adored each other. I’d always wanted a sister, and I was jealous.
Venus was the star at the time, already playing part-time on the WTA, but Serena was nipping right at her heels. Two months prior to their first match on the pro tour at the 1998 Australian Open, they were asked what it would be like to play each other. A giggly Serena answered, “Venus and I already discussed this, and I told her that it might be a different story on the court, but I’m going to try really hard. I’m not going to go out there and just let her win.” As Serena talked, Venus stroked her little sister’s hair.
They were also asked if they had the “killer instinct” that so many consider a must for top athletes. “I hope I have that tenacity,” Serena answered, breathlessly. “If I don’t then maybe this isn’t the sport for me.”
“What I think? I think she, I never thought I had the killer spear, I just thought I went out there and played,” a smiling and fast-talking Venus interjected. Then, looking proudly at her sister, she added, “I think Serena definitely does.”
I wasn’t a tennis fan at the time, but that was the exact moment I fell in love with Venus Williams.
I don’t cry often about tennis. I think Andy Roddick’s abrupt retirement dried up my tennis tears.
But yesterday I cried.
I wasn’t expecting to cry. It wasn’t on my to-do list. I had run to the car to grab my winter coat right after play at the Family Circle Cup had begun, because it was absolutely freezing. (I had kept the big jacket in the car out of pure denial, but had finally reached the point where I knew it was my only hope to get to watch matches outside of the comfort of the heated media center. I’m a bit of a wuss.) On my way back from the parking lot, I stopped by Althea Gibson to watch a little bit of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Madison Keys. Sure, I was interested in that match, but I was also avoiding the happenings on Stadium. I was afraid that Venus was going to come out flat, and I was afraid to check the scores to see if I was right. But with Keys up 5-1, I garnered the courage to peak at my phone. Venus was up a break.
I ran over to Billie Jean King court and perched in the media seats. I pulled out my moleskine notebook, where I typically take notes on points, scores, and observations during matches. I sat back in my flimsy chair and watched as Venus Williams, one of my favorite athletes in the world, took the first set 6-2 over Varvara Lepchenko with a relative fleet of forehand and backhand winners.
I didn’t write a single note. As I listened to the half-packed crowd cheer their hearts out for the veteran Venus so early on the uncomfortably cold day, I found myself completely overwhelmed with emotion.
For me, watching Venus Williams play live isn’t just about the tennis.
For me, watching Venus Williams play live is about the joy she felt when she reached her first major final at the US Open in 1997. It’s about the class she showed when she was defeated in four straight major finals by her younger sister from 2002-2003. It’s about her epic battle with Davenport in the 2005 Wimbledon final that I “watched” on live scores while working a terrible job as a reservationist for a hotel the summer between my freshmen and sophomore year of college. It’s about how I had to spend part of my lunch break that day letting out my joy in the parking lot, likely scaring away guests.
For me, watching Venus Williams play live is about her fight for equal prize money, and the fearless leadership she’s provided to women’s tennis.
For me, watching Venus Williams play live is about the heartbreaks. There have been many, but the collapse in the second set tiebreak against Kim Clijsters in the 2010 US Open semifinal stands out. You know the one.
For me, watching Venus Williams play live is about Sjogren’s Syndrome. It’s about the fact that she’s able to play two matches in a day a year after she was barely able to get through one. It’s about the fact that she has had the strength to manage a disease that has affected so many and still be a professional tennis player. It’s about having the strength to have no excuses.
For me, watching Venus Williams play live is about the fact that I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to. When she withdrew before her second round match against Sabine Lisicki at the 2011 US Open, I didn’t think I’d ever get to see her play again. I thought that was it.
For me, watching Venus Williams play live is about feeling guilty for ever doubting her. It’s about her gold medal in doubles last year, her title in Luxembourg, and her top 20 ranking at the age of 32. It’s about the fact that she’s still out there, that she still cares, that she still loves this game as much as she did when she was a child.
For me, watching Venus Williams isn’t about forehands and backhands, points, or games. It’s about perseverance, survival, and inspiration. For me, it’s personal.
And so as I watched her battle Varvara Lepchenko yesterday morning, I betrayed my media credential, pulled down my sunglasses, and for just a moment, I cried.
Today, in front of a packed crowd in the Charleston semifinals, Serena and Venus squared off for the 24th time in their illustrious careers. It was the first time they have played since the end of 2009. Because of everything they’ve been through in the past few years, this match was different.
Talking to the media before the much-hyped match-up, Venus reflected on the journey she and her sister have been on since their last meeting:
The last years have been challenging and at some points difficult, but I think in both of our heads we never gave up on tennis, or ourselves, or belief. And that’s what’s crucial is that you never stop believing in yourself. And it’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
A lot has happened the past few years in my life, too. Watching Serena and Venus square off today, I thought about how lucky I am to have gotten through so much and to be here in Charleston, watching one of my idols and writing about tennis. Life isn’t perfect by any means, but that only serves to make the sweet moments that much sweeter.
Venus lost rather meekly today. Serena dominated her 6-1, 6-2, and it didn’t really even feel that close. But the WTA No. 1 was very protective of her older sister in press. “I mean she’ll never admit it, ever, but I don’t think she was 100 percent,” Serena said. “But you will never get that out of her.”
About half an hour later when asked about the conditions in her own press conference, Venus matter-of-factly stated, “I played under the same circumstances as everyone else.”
Often times meeting someone you’ve looked up to your entire life can be disappointing. Being in press with Venus this week has been the opposite. She doesn’t talk down to anyone. She smiles like she means it. She’s soft-spoken, personable, and warm. She sometimes strolls in the front door of the media center, sans entourage, while most players are go-carted around to the side door. She’s patient, she’s smart, and if she feels sorry for herself, she doesn’t let on.
Venus Williams has seven Grand Slams, 44 titles, and has been No. 1 in the world. Any way you stack the numbers, her career has been a massive success. And to add to all of that, while dealing with an autoimmune disease that compromises the quality of life of mere mortals, she is currently the No. 24-ranked tennis player in the world.
In press yesterday, I asked her about that 60 Minutes interview she’d given when she was 17. I told her what she said then, about how she questioned whether she had killer instinct. Though she didn’t remember the interview, she smiled and laughed.
“Well, if I didn’t have it then, I definitely do now.”