Venus Interview from Hamburg 2002(The Guardian)
What planet is she on?
She was a prodigy who was trained by her father, but that's where the likeness to the other focused, driven champions ends. This one likes doughnuts, admits she can be lazy and enjoys teasing interviewers.
Sunday June 9, 2002
Venus Williams lounges, all arms and legs, in the corner of the bar in a Hamburg hotel. She's telling me about her competitive debut on a tennis court. It all started, she says, in her sleepy, giggly way, back when she was three and a half years old, and her Daddy took her down to the nearest club in Los Angeles, and organised a game for her against the pro. She had a cut-down racket, and was a bit shy at first, but soon she was 'serving overarm, aces and everything, hitting forehands down the line'.
I'm leaning forward a little while she recounts the detail of this story, imagining the toddler with the corn-row hair, swinging her modified racket for all she was worth, already refusing to take a step back for anyone, her Daddy urging her on. 'And how did you do?' I wonder.
'I was used to beating guys by then, so I beat this guy, too...' she says, her eyes wide and her mouth breaking into its spectacular grin. 'Straight sets.'
I'm near the edge of my seat by now. 'Really?' I say, 'You beat him? When you were three?'
She pauses a beat, then looks at me.
'Nahhhh!' she says, and throws back her head, laughing hugely. 'Course not!'
There are not too many prodigies who can make fun of the idea of their genius, but Venus Williams can't take any of her charmed life quite seriously. When she first came on to the tennis circuit, her easy self-assurance was interpreted as arrogance; tour players who had been told all their life that tennis was a complicated grind where only those who focused, focused and focused would succeed, were unnerved by the gangly teenager in the locker room, laughing about her laziness, about how she found it hard to concentrate on practice. She was frozen out for a long time, dismissed with her younger sister, Serena, as disrespectful, uppity, but she did not care about that too much.
In retrospect, it seems that Williams, now the world's leading player as she and her family always suggested she would be, was not so much boasting about her natural talent, rather - like a young Muhammad Ali - just excitedly letting the world in on her great secret. There was an idea that women's tennis would, after Navratilova and her pumped-up forearms, be dominated by those who worked the hardest, started the youngest and practised the longest; but there had always been a sense in the Williams family of the importance of doing things a little differently.
Venus has inherited much of her attitude from her father and coach, Richard, though she can laugh languidly about him, too. This is a man whose pride at seeing his daughters fulfil the wild, sponsorship-friendly prophecies he made for them as juniors, has been matched only by his subsequent delight in winding up the white male tennis establishment in general, and its journalists in particular. For a while, his telephone carried the following answer machine message: 'Hi, I'm Richard Williams. There are those who want to ask me what I think of inter-marriage. Anyone that's marrying outside of this race that's black should be hung by their necks until sundown. Please leave a message after the tone...'
Like many tennis dads - Mike Agassi, Stefano Capriati - Richard Williams had plotted Venus and Serena's success ante-natally. The legend has it that while watching a satellite women's tennis tournament in the late Seventies, Williams, the son of a sharecropper from the Deep South, was amazed at the prize money - more than he earned in a year running a security firm - and wondered how he might tap into it. He had three daughters, but he believed they were already too old to turn into champions, and his wife, Oracene (known as 'Brandi'), was not eager to have any more. Williams's solution, by his own account, was to sabotage her contraceptive pills and, in 1980, Venus was born. Two years later his wife gave birth to Serena.
Like all Williams's claims, this family lore is to be taken not entirely in earnest - but if he planned Grand Slam winners from conception, it is really there that the comparisons with most of the more driven sporting parents end. Rather than sending Venus and Serena to a hothouse academy or travelling with them on the junior circuit, he put his youngest daughters on a training programme of his own devising, taking them out every day on the municipal courts in the rough and ready borough of Compton in Los Angeles.
His story goes that while the girls were perfecting their topspin, they were witnesses to drive-by gang shootings (Venus herself suggests that on one occasion she and her sister had to 'dive for cover when bullets started flying'). Her father claims that he made a deal with the gangs in the neighbourhood to let his daughters - his 'ghetto Cinderellas' - practise in relative peace, because the 'lily white world of tennis' needed to be shaken up a bit.
In many ways the purpose of this mythology has long been served - since the Williams sisters' Grand Slam wins the lily white world of tennis will perhaps never be quite the same again - and these days Venus seems keen to play down the tales from the 'hood. Ask her now about the character of her growing up and she says only that 'you just take the childhood you're given, right? You don't question it! We were all just so happy!'
I wonder at one point if there were drug casualties around among her friends?
'I was 10 years old,' she says. 'I wasn't in the drugs scene. I guess some kids around me had to grow up quickly, had all those problems. But I wasn't one of those kids, or around those kids, not at all.'
Still, when I ask her if she thinks she will ever regret not having a 'normal' childhood (as Agassi and Capriati have done over the years) she puts her head in her hands and suddenly exclaims: 'But our Mom was so cruel! I'm always telling her that! We were so deprived!'
In what way exactly?
Her face crumbles in mock-despair. 'I can't say,' she says.
'Well, you know most kids in their lunch boxes have little happy juices and stuff - we didn't get juices, we got milk! It ruined my childhood, you know. All my friends got Captain Crunch cereal or Froot Loops, and we had to have Puff Wheat...'
And she's rocking back laughing again. 'So cruel! No Froot Loops! Of course, when I confront her Mom makes excuses - she didn't want us to have sugar because we were already all bouncing off the walls - but that's no good to me now! The damage is done!'
Venus is here in Hamburg with her mother, and her dog, Bobby, a Yorkshire terrier (he travels everywhere with her, she says, 'except England, or any of England's old colonies. You guys really left your mark on the world...') Her parents divide their time between their daughters' matches, and both still spend a lot of time on court with them, advising and coaching.
When Venus first came on the tour, Brandi, like her husband and children a Jehovah's Witness, was keen to warn her of the dangers she might face. 'They are in the locker room talking with these older women - undressed - who are lesbians,' she once explained. 'The kids get caught up in something and think "Maybe that's really me" when it's not. So, yeah, I taught Venus and Serena about that...'
In describing the differences between her daughters, Brandi has been apt to say that Serena has always had to work hard for her success, but that everything has always come easy to Venus, whether it was at school or on the tennis court.
When I put this description to Venus she smiles at the suggestion, and says a little half-heartedly, 'I feel I've always worked pretty hard. I'm no flash in the pan, you know. I think I'm demonstrating some kind of longstanding commitment...'
And then she concedes her mother maybe has a point: 'I guess I always knew I'd be a champ. That's what I was told, and at that age that's what you believe...' She smiles shyly, stretches out her legs still further, giggles some more to herself. 'You know I was always really very, very, very good. Serena, on the other hand, wasn't very good at all. She was small, really slim and the racket was way too big for her. Hopeless. Believe it or not she used to lob and slice. That was her game.' She thinks of the aggressive power her little sister now possesses, shakes her head. 'She's moved on from there. She started playing especially good tennis at around 15, which was soon enough - I mean she won the US Open two years later - but still it was quite late compared to me. You know,' she says, 'I guess I was always Venus...'
Venus seems to have a very clear idea of who Venus is, and where Venus came from, and where Venus is going - so much so that she often talks about herself in the third person, or at least about that version of herself that is a product or a phenomenon. She seems amused by many of the trials this Venus has to go through, and by some of the nonsense that surrounds her role as the world's most bankable player. Later in the day I see her on top of a crane in the city centre with the tournament organiser, a portly German gentleman, signing a billboard of herself, cheek to cheek with a gigantic image of her own backside, and unable to stop giggling. I begin to see how her irony might keep her sane.
Some of this distance comes from her religious faith. Or at least, she says, that is certainly why she's as laid back as she is. 'I know for sure that all this is not the only thing in life,' she suggests. 'I know it's not the most important thing for me to win the most Grand Slams and be remembered in this world. I certainly don't have to win little tournaments here, there and everywhere, I don't have to win at all,' she says, before remembering herself and adding: 'Although I do want to.'
Her attitude to competition is also perhaps a product of her father's prescient judgment in not letting his daughters really play competitively until they were late into their teens. While he had always been quick to tell anyone that would listen, and many that wouldn't, of his girls' great prowess, (Venus had already signed six-figure endorsement deals with Reebok when she was 10) Richard Williams did not put them up against the best of their peers as they were growing up, didn't think it right that girls should have to experience that kind of competitive pressure. 'Don't get too tied up in this,' he claims to have told Venus in an attempt to limit her time on the practice court, 'or you'll be like the rest of them. You'll be a dummy and a fool.'
Some coaches told him he was throwing away their chances with this attitude, but when Venus eventually joined the circuit full time at 17, with good exam grades behind her, and ambitions to learn Chinese and play the guitar, she won the first tournament she entered. Her father, of course, sat in the stands holding a placard that read: 'I told you so.'
Martina Hingis, who is exactly Venus's contemporary, had already won more than 100 professional matches at the same age and the strain of that early success seems now to have caught up with her body. Hingis's feet and ankles and knees have suffered the shocks of the relentless schedule, and she is already contemplating retirement at 22. Jennifer Capriati (Venus's greatest rival in the last year) struggled with different demons before getting her head together, and the stories of Carling Bassett and Andrea Jaeger should be admonitory.
In contrast, Venus seems possessed of a kind of balance that perhaps comes from being allowed to grow into her extraordinary body at her own pace. She also has no sense of yet having fulfilled a fraction of her potential - she has four Grand Slam victories, two at Wimbledon, two at the US Open, and it is hard not to see her achieving many more.
Her father once suggested - and he has suggested many, many things - that he wanted her to be out of tennis by the time she was 25, ('By 26, she can graduate college and then start setting her businesses up. By 30, 31 she'll be set, and by 35 she can give me a grandchild.') but she does not see much prospect of that. 'That's just Dad,' she says, rolling her eyes slightly. 'No, I intend on playing for a while. It's getting easier I think. A forehand crosscourt, backhand down the line, a couple of aces. Game. This life's not so complicated...'
I wonder how much of her motivation she still derives from being a black player at the top of a still overwhelmingly white sport. She says that though she 'never forgets she is a black player on court, and it would be hard to think otherwise,' she doesn't really believe that fact gives her extra motivation.
Over the years, she has been smart, gracious, enough to let others, notably her father, of course - address this subject for her. (When he used to sit in on her original interviews and press conferences Richard Williams would routinely preface them with the words: 'Now, don't be intimidated by us. We won't hurt you.') Her mother, too, was less circumspect. 'They don't even look at her,' Brandi Williams said of Venus, when she first joined the tour. 'I think they're afraid of her. They want her to be their Stepin Fetchit.'
Venus says simply now that she's never experienced any racism in tennis, and smiles brightly. The obvious comparison in this respect, and in many others, is with Tiger Woods. Is she driven by a sense of history, like Woods, a desire to take the sport to another level?
She shakes her head a little wearily at the thought, which seems to sound far too much like hard work. 'Nah, not really,' she says, quietly. 'My ambition is to enjoy my life and to do exactly what I want to do...' And then a little more determinedly: 'And I'll do that. I will be free.'
Some of this independence has led Venus into trouble over the past few years. In the same way that they protested against the rigours of the junior tour by not playing it, Venus and her sister have also been criticised for picking and choosing their matches, not perhaps fulfilling all their ludicrous tournament commitments.
Venus says she has no trouble getting psyched up for nothing events like the one in Hamburg, and it is where she played some of the best tennis of her life last year, but you get the sense she believes it is a necessary evil rather than something to get overly excited about. Tellingly, Serena is not here, and the sisters let their schedules ensure these days that they only meet on the biggest stages. When Venus pulled out of a semi-final against her sister in Indian Wells last year, blaming a mystery injury, Serena was booed through the final against Kim Clijsters, and there was much agonising in the press box.
She remains philosophical about this 'problem', saying only that they try to keep apart as much as they can in smaller events. Venus leads the series 4-1, including a crushing straight sets win in the US Open final last year. Will there be special pressures on their matches after that?
'Well,' she says, 'Serena's always real tough you know. I just hope she gives me a second serve to hit every now and then when we play.'
Do they worry if they play too often it might get in the way of their special relationship?
'No,' she says, 'that would be idiotic, and just being the big sister I would never let that happen. If we argued about it once we got off court, she'd shake me or we'd have a hug or whatever. It would never get personal.'
Does she still feel she has to look out for her sister on the tour?
'I think in the beginning she thought she was me,' Venus says smiling, 'But in the last couple of years - she's 20 now! Little Serena, all grown up! - she's realised that she's not me. She's pretty much an extrovert character and I'm an introvert. She likes to go out, party, make friends. Whereas me I like being at home, hanging out with Bobby, reading books,'
Venus was widely criticised, too, for missing a few events after 11 September. Her rival Lindsay Davenport suggested that Venus had 'lied' about an injury she had in order to miss an event. Talking about it now, it seems that Davenport perhaps had a point, though Venus will not be specific. 'It was a difficult time,' she says. 'I cancelled a couple of things because I didn't want to go, I guess. I wanted to be at home.'
How did she feel about being called a liar?
'I must have forgotten about that, I guess,' she says, smiling faintly.
Does any of that kind of animosity come out in the locker room?
'No. If I had to confront someone I suppose I would. But then I'm not so bothered what anyone else thinks.'
Venus is quite aware that the tour, and perhaps the US tour in particular needs her, a little bit more than she needs it. Since the retirement of Steffi Graf and with the demise of any real challenge from the poster girl, Anna Kournikova, Williams is the one whom everyone wants to see. I wonder if the money that attends this position has come to seem absurd to a girl who grew up with a five-dollar allowance - which she blew on secret doughnuts and ice cream.
'Not really absurd,' she says, enjoying the idea. 'I mean I guess there's always going to be jobs that pay more than others, and I suppose I have one of those...'
I suggest this is perhaps a slight understatement, given that she earned $10 million last year from prize money and endorsements (even more than Kournikova).
She giggles. 'I'm just blessed, I guess.' And then in her best mock hand-wringing tones. 'If I didn't play tennis I don't know where I'd be. I don't know if I'd be in trouble or fighting or in college, getting thin on noodles and rice - I'd be thrilled about that - or maybe I wouldn't have gone to college. I would be faced with so many decisions!'
Her wealth must bring its own decisions: what does she do with it all?
She says, of course, she does a lot of shopping - 'I shop very well' - gives some to charity and has along the way become something of a connoisseur of begging letters.
'Though these days I don't open my mail any more unless I'm expecting something. Still I get all these weird letters! One from a guy in South Africa recently who sent me a letter proposing that I regularly sent him a few thousand dollars and in return he would send me more letters. I'm not sure about that deal! My favourite was from a lady who wrote me saying, "My name is so and so and I have seven children to support, and what's more I am a clown." And she sent a picture of herself in a clown suit. I loved that letter,' she grins. 'I didn't send any money. But still I loved the letter.'
In between tournaments she's doing her correspondence course in interior design at the London Guildhall. 'I'm going to have my diploma soon,' she says brightly. 'Once you take an interest, you're eyes kind of open up to interiors you know.'
She's fixing up her own place?
We gaze round the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel Hamburg, with its mock rococo flourishes and burnished wood fittings.
What would she change about this?
'I think it's beautiful just the way it is,' she says.
Williams does not really moan too much about the price of fame. When I ask how it has been to do her growing up in public, she laughs and says she's not grown up yet. She's a bit wary of the British press since one tabloid reporter staked out her home before Wimbledon last year, kept trying to get into her house - and probably not, she supposes, to write an interiors piece - but mostly, she says, she can hold on to a private life of sorts.
Does she find that who she is gets in the way of relationships?
She smiles some more. 'I suppose it might if I was looking for one, but I mean I'm not really on the market right now. I'm only 21, I wouldn't say I was especially desperate to get that ring on my finger. When I'm 40, maybe, and it still hasn't happened perhaps I'll be wondering what's going on, but I'm OK for now...' In this, and all things, it seems, she's still happy enough to listen to the advice of her parents.
I wonder if she had been looking forward to dancing with her fellow champion Goran Ivanisevic at last year's Wimbledon Ball. 'Yeah,' she says, 'but I didn't have a dress. I mean I thought that I might have to go to the ball so I'd bought this dress. A shirt dress, strapless, bright red, you know, quite short. A lovely dress. But when I put it on my Mom said, all concerned, you know, "Haven't you got anything else?" And after that of course I couldn't wear it. So I just wore... whatever. And anyway I think that they cancelled the dancing, when it got to be my turn...'
Does she see a time when she will want to break free of that family involvement in her life, doesn't she ever feel it stifling?
'No!' she says, firmly. 'I love it! When we all get together, us five girls, Mom and Dad, we have such a jolly time, as you say in London.'
And if they clash, all these formidable forces, who tends to get the last word?
'I guess we all do,' she says. 'Or at least,' and this sounds much more like it, 'we all have the last laugh.'
FUCK YOU, SEWTA.[/SIZE]