Crouse: The other side of Venus
By Karen Crouse, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2003
JUPITER -- Venus Williams catches the eye of her father, who is standing across the crowded room. She motions for him to come over. She is standing beside the doorway to a smaller room, her face radiating pleasure.
"Daddy," the 23-year-old says with a grand sweep of her arm, "this is my office."
Richard Williams peers in the doorway. The room is warm and feminine and chic without being showoff-y. Anybody can see it reflects the budding designer's personality beautifully.
He nods. "It's beautiful, Vee," he whispers. His eyes meet hers and in that instant everybody else falls away.
Somebody tugs at Venus and the whole room comes back into focus. Williams is surrounded on all sides by designers and distributors, real estate brokers and party planners, tradespeople and architects and local dignitaries. Everybody is eager to talk to her about V Starr Interiors, the design company that she started nearly two years ago.
The business is keeping her so busy that it's nearly five in the afternoon before she realizes she hasn't had a thing to eat all day. She picks a caramel-filled chocolate out of a crystal bowl that's within her long reach, unwraps it and pops it in her mouth.
Williams lights up when asked about the origins of an oil painting in the hallway that shows choirboys who have just been released from practice, scattering like doves. She explains how she acquired the painting from an Italian art dealer she met while traveling in Florence.
Inevitably, the subject of tennis comes up. A reporter asks her about her mind-set heading into next month's Australian Open, which will be Williams' first competitive event since losing to her younger sister, Serena, in the final at Wimbledon in July.
Her back stiffens and her voice cools. "I don't think I want to talk about tennis," she says. "I'm not a tennis player today."
Last year, Venus passed the No. 1 world ranking to Serena as though it were just another stylish article of clothing. Then came injuries to Venus (an abdominal strain) and Serena (knee surgery) and the most enchanting sister act since the Gabors vanished from the world stage.
Two Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, filled the void at the top of the rankings. But there can be no replacing the Williamses, a point driven home recently by tennis' grande dame.
"It's going to be a fascinating story, to see if Serena and Venus can recapture the No. 1 and 2 spots next year," Martina Navratilova said. "Will they both be playing? Just one? How far will they go? How fast will they play great tennis again?"
Good questions all. On Thursday, they go unanswered, tennis being a subject that's swept under the imported Persian rugs.
A quick glance around her new design center leaves you with the distinct impression that the sport that has made Williams fabulously wealthy and famous has no place in her grand designs. Walking around the well-appointed rooms, you're as likely to stumble upon tennis bric-a-brac as you are a cheap knickknack.
And Serena? There's no sign of her anywhere except in block letters on a designing board tacked on one wall. Venus is decorating the living area and dining room of her sister's West L.A. condo, thus explaining an artist's drawing of a sectional sofa hanging alongside a few swatches of fabric, luxurious purples and creams that are on order from Italy.
Interior design is every square inch as competitive as the women's professional tennis circuit. It can be perilous, trying to establish a foothold in the business. Talent will take you only so far. As more than one partygoer whispers between sips of champagne, "It's not what you know. It's who you know."
Or in Williams' case, who knows you.
Venus can camouflage her tennis persona, but she can't run from it.
"The opportunities we get obviously are wonderful because people already know who Venus is," says Bonnie Nathan, the director of design at V Starr.
A couple of hours into the open house, a party planner arrives and makes a beeline for Venus, as if to prove Nathan's point.
The woman cuts a striking figure in a two-piece red leather suit. Ellen Trainor never has met Williams, but of course she knows who she is. She chats her up, then moves on.
"I was determined to ask her about her tennis career," Trainor says. "I've been wondering if she intends to keep playing tennis, because she is still really young, and do the designing, too. She said she's not going to give up tennis, but she wants to have a more full life."
Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all, though Williams' trainer, Kerrie Brooks, isn't thrilled when word filters back to her at the party that Venus is keeping her full schedule on an empty stomach.
Does Williams still have hunger for tennis? She can be the No. 1 player in the world again. Only she knows if it's part of her grand design.