By HARVEY ARATON
Published: March 8, 2007
When Venus called, Larry Scott knew it wasn’t to chat or catch up on the latest Tour gossip.
Not the style of most tennis divas and certainly not that of the senior, more studious Williams playing sister.
“She’s not always the most accessible, responsive person, wanting to be out there, wanting to be heard,” said Scott, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association. “But in my time with the Tour, Venus has been a member of the player council and she’s one of the people whose opinions on the big issues I’ve come to admire and count on. She’s incredibly thoughtful. Her feelings about some things run deep.”
Where has the gangly teenager with the braids and bouncing beads gone? In June, Williams will turn 27, the approximate age of a full-blown Tour stateswoman, the role she appears to be embracing right on time and, not surprisingly, on her own terms.
It’s not that Venus — who with her sister Serena bucked overwhelming odds in ascending from Compton, Calif., to African-American champion of the global country club — has no interest in what conventional wisdom would envision as her natural social cause. She is just the product of a family with a fierce independent streak, a young woman who has traveled the world as part of an international troupe and apparently developed a more wide-ranging scope.
Today, International Women’s Day, is as good a time for Williams to say that her plan is to follow a path paved long ago by Billie Jean King.
“Gender equity is an issue I expect to be involved in for the rest of my life,” she said in a telephone interview, discussing a partnership between the W.T.A. and Unesco to advance women’s rights around the world through a series of programs and scholarship.
She began as a vocal and successful equal prize-money campaigner at Wimbledon in 2005 — “close your eyes, imagine your daughter is being treated as less than equal,” Williams told a room full of Grand Slam tournament executives — and will now front a joint operation of the world’s best-known female athletes and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
At Wimbledon, it was about the principle, not the money, Williams said. In Madrid, where she hastily traveled last November when Scott called and asked her to serve as campaign ambassador, the announcement at the Tour’s year-end championships was the realization of the impact a simple suggestion could have.
“I wouldn’t say no,” she said. “I couldn’t.”
The inspiration, after all, was her.
She had gone to the Espys last spring to receive a trophy and left with a calling. She watched the presentation of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to a couple of young Afghan females who helped start a women’s soccer program in post-Taliban Kabul, found their story “so moving” that she telephoned Scott to say, “These are the kinds of things for women around the world that we should be doing.”
Scott listened carefully, heard something rare.
“It was kind of a peek behind Venus’s curtain and I’ll tell you, in all my years in tennis, on the men’s Tour and women’s, I haven’t gotten too many calls like that,” he said.
That it came from Venus Williams would only surprise those who have judged her from afar, or fallen into the trap of comparing her with her more charismatic, flamboyant sister, who always carried the lesser burden of the intra-family competition. Though neither has been dominant or overly active on the Tour, it feels like a long time since Serena wasn’t eclipsing Venus, at least in the superficial way the public gets to judge.
Under such circumstances, any parent that has reared two children with such disparate personalities would have to occasionally feel for Venus, the quiet, introspective one. Meanwhile, injuries aside, she has been growing up, taking the measure of her years, and of those to come.
She credited one of her Tour predecessors and fellow African-Americans, Zina Garrison, for helping to raise her consciousness. But Garrison, in a telephone interview, said there have been times when it felt like the other way around.
“You know how everyone always talks about how African-Americans come out of low-income housing and that’s why they excel at sports?” Garrison said. “It was Venus who first made me understand why the Russian girls were doing so well. She said, ‘You know, they come from one-bedroom houses, too. They’re hungry. They may look different and speak a different language but their situation is no different.’
“That’s Venus — she’s in touch with a lot more things than most people realize. Personality wise, I’ve always compared her to Arthur Ashe and I’ve told her that I believe in my heart that she has a gift, the capability of being a humanitarian, too. Venus would give me that little eye and say, ‘O.K., Zina,’ but when I heard what she’s doing, I said, ‘You do get it, girl.’ ”
Ashe saw beyond discrimination at home, all the way to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa. Asked if she thought some might be disappointed that she, as a black role model, is not championing racial equality, Williams said, by all means, she is.
She talked about conditions in Africa and other parts of the third world, where AIDS, tribal traditions and prostitution are devastating for women. “I know Serena and I are well known in African countries,” she said. “Every one of us is famous somewhere. We should use that to help women where they don’t have rights.”
She said the campaign, still taking form, will be a collective effort, not her show. Once a polarizing locker-room figure, Williams now aims to be a grand Tour unifier. She said she was healthy again, hungry after her recent small tournament victory in Memphis. She wants to win more Grand Slam events before the years fly by, before she hits the far side of 30, before her new moonlighting gig as the stateswoman of tennis turns into the day job.
If it ever does, it will trace to a phone call. Even Ashe and Billie Jean had to start somewhere.