Venus & ACE Magazine - QueenO
Heavy Weight Champ
Venus Williams has reached the summit of the sport, but she has one major goal this year: the French Open. In this exclusive interview she tells ace, "I know I have a chance of winning anywhere and everywhere...including Paris"
After an exhausting and highly successful two months on the road, reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion Venus Williams celebrated her historic arrival at No 1 in the world. Venus, who has more than fulfilled her extraordinary teenage promise, has been around so long that it seems hard to believe she is still only 21!
Her place is assured in the record books: she's the only 10th player to hold the top spot since the WTA world rankings began in 1975, replacing her compatriot Jennifer Capriati, who held the top spot for the previous nine weeks.
Following a strong start to the year which included titles at Gold Coast, Paris and Antwerp, Venus headed home after reaching the semi-finals in Dubai for some well deserved rest and relaxation. In an exclusive interview, she tells ace just what it means to fulfill the controversial and widely ridiculed predictions which she and her father had made in her early teens that she would one day reach No.1.
"I have always set myself difficult goals in life", she explains. "Quite simply because otherwise you don't achieve any of the difficult goals. I don't think my plan was unrealistic. I was young, fresh, gutsy, aggressive and I had the talent you need...so why shouldn't I have achieved it?
"I have never been bothered about what other people say, what other people write, what people say on televison. It was like water off a duck's back. The only pressure there is comes from yourself. I'm the one who gets the best out of herself, I'm the one who says: Venus you have to win this match. Or you must become the best tennis player.
"But my father played an enormously important role, because it was he who made Serena and me what we are: two of the best players in the world."
Despite his huge influence, Richard Williams, once ever present at his daughterís matches, now rarely goes to their tournaments - something Venus attributes to the sheer stress of watching them play.
"I think he's afraid that he won't always be able to cope with the strain on his nerves on the spot, on the court," she says. "A journey as long as the one we made to Australia is not his idea of fun in any case; our mother comes on her own with us then. Daddy has quite a bad fear of flying, so a trip like that would have been an absolute nightmare for him. He also has a lot of business interests at home, so he has more to think about than just dealing with tennis day in day out."
She admits that much of the personal criticism of her mercurial father is hurtful, particularly as he remains so crucial to her career. "He was, he is and he will continue to be," she defiantly declares. "Even if other people don't like him and make offensive remarks. He made sure that we were able to find our way in tennis at our own pace and didnít burn out at an early age like other kids. Serena and I will be eternally grateful to him for that"
Fear of burnout dictated both sisters' light tournament schedules and explained why neither of them played on the junior tour. Venus is convinced that this was the ideal solution for them, even though they and their father encountered huge criticism for entering so few tournaments and also pulling out unexpectedly from others for no obvious reason.
"We say plenty of bad examples," Venus recalls. "Girls who had great results as 13 or 14 year old girls but the disappeared into no man's land when they went on the regular tour. Even Jennifer Capriati had her problems, before she made that great comeback and won a number of major tournaments. Serena and I - we never stopped enjoying our tennis because we had planned our program carefully.
"Everyone in tennis has to be comfortable with what they're doing and to be able to do what is right for them personally. It was important not to play each and every tournament going, because you need to stay fit and be ready for the top competitions and still have time for other interests - such as my design course. What's so bad about that? Besides, I now play to a fairly intensive schedule; I was on the move virtually non-stop during the first two months of this year."
She admits that her success is like a dream come true after her rough start in one of Los Angeles' most intimidating suburbs. "We have had a really tough time, now we've made it to the safe side. But we have also been shaped by our childhood; it was the toughest school you can imagine.
"I remember one time when we were practicing on a public court - my father, Serena and I - and suddenly a shoot out started on the court next door. My father threw himself on top of us and said: 'Keep still, don't say a word, otherwise it's all over'. We saw stabbings, brawls, and gang fights as well. That was every day life for us. We will never forget it."
Venus like the rest of the Williams clan has never been troubled by false modesty but, surprisingly, despite the boxer speak, the apparent naivety and the taste for spending sprees around the shopping malls, she has an impressive grasp of tennis history and the role of other black stars who blazed a trail for their modern-day counterparts. She is thrilled to be the first African-American, man or woman, to reach the top spot in tennis's computer rankings, but equally aware of the influence of former greats such as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, both Wimbledon champions - Gibson in 1957 and 1958 and Ashe in 1975.
"I don't feel I'm anything the first", she insists. "Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were also really No.1 in their day, even if it was not obvious from the rankings in those days. (Gibson's era was long before the introduction of official world rankings, whilst Jimmy Connors kept Ashe off the ATPís top spot). Althea was an even more important personality, a role model for many athletes of my color. She must never be forgotten. In any case I represent all of America in my sport. I think that's important."
Apart from Gibson, Venus names Steffi Graf as her greatest tennis idol. "Steffi was the most fantastic player in modern women's tennis," she declares. "She is head and shoulders above everyone else. I always wanted to have the same strength and athleticism as Steffi. One thing is clear: there is plenty I want to achieve in tennis but no-one - not me, nor any other player in the future will be able to come close to Steffi. Such a dominance and so many titles...will never happen again".
She points to the formidably high standard of the current stars of the women's game to emphasize the daunting task she face in trying to stay No.1. "There are plenty of brilliant players, such as Hingis, Davenport, Capriati, Seles or the Belgians, Henin and Clijsters. But I hope Serena will provide the strongest opposition. Maybe her form is still a little inconsistent. But our matches will still be hard-fought. And our matches will be fair too.
"And if there's anyone I don't mind losing to at the end of the day, it has to be Serena. We will always be inseparable, even if we do battle it out on court. We argue very rarely. And it's never serious. We have always joined forces against all the others who wanted to have a go at us. We make a very formidable duo. And we are always up for it, having fun. Particularly now, traveling the world together. It's like an exciting adventure for us - the new cities, all the different people, all these new things to experience".
Best of all however is the realization that has truly earned her position at No.1, through her big match victories in the majors which have helped to build the crucial self belief that she is capable of anything, including a first victory in the French Open.
"The step up to the top has come at just the right time for me," she grins. "Because my Grand Slam titles last year have allowed me to establish the platform from which I can feel - in my own mind - that I really deserve this position. The No.1 position would be meaningless for me if I hadn't won the Grand Slams. But the two together - the major titles and being No.1 - that is an absolute dream. I know I have a chance of winning anywhere and everywhere, including Paris. If my mind's right, anything is possible.
"If there is one thing I have learnt over recent years, it is how important it is to believe in yourself. Once you have the confidence, everything else comes automatically."
(Written by Jorg Allmeroth and Sally Jones)