Earth to Venus
Earth to Venus
By IAN COCKERILL
Sunday 13 January 2002
Venus Williams: not conforming to others' expectations.
Picture: ANGELA WYLIE
If Venus Williams, tennis player and sometime-clothes designer, could choose between being blessed with Gustavo Kuerten's backhand and Pete Sampras' volley, or the flair and timing to create the best outfits on the world's catwalks for next 10 years, which would it be?
Those who think they understand her, who believe the most enigmatic of the tennis champions could walk from the sport at any moment, would plump for the second option.
The young woman herself examines the question carefully before answering, in that soft, sing-song voice of hers: "I wouldn't take either one".
"Sorry. I think Kuerten's backhand is great, but it's for him, and Pete's volley is wonderful, but it's for him. And I don't interpret fashion by best or not, it's art, so you can't say one piece of art is better than the next."
What you can say is this - Venus has made an art of not conforming to others' expectations. That much is confirmed today, as she sits in the players' lounge at the Sydney International Tennis Centre, wearing a signature skin-tight ensemble of the type not normally seen on devout Jehovah's Witnesses.
The sort of outfit Sports Illustrated's Rick Rielly once suggested "could make an abbot snap a rosary".
The hottest property in the game is savouring a week off after her win at the Australian Women's Hardcourt Championship - a victory that extended her winning streak to 20 games and four tournaments - before making her run at the Australian Open title she believes it's high time she won.
The centre court at the Sydney International has been ceded to her little sister Serena, while Venus joins her mum Oracene to cheer from the stands.
Serena might have the stage at this event, but it's the 21-year-old Venus who heads to Melbourne as the marquee name entering 2002.
A pair of Wimbledons and US Open titles from her past six grand slams - the result of a refined power game and improving court craft - have persuaded most judges that she is the best player in the game, notwithstanding a ranking system that has Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati ahead of her as reward for playing significantly more tournaments.
If the rankings debate concerns Venus, it doesn't show. Since arriving in Australia, she has informed the world that she is aiming to win "three or four" grand slams this year.
And today, despite her known aversion to spending time in close contact with the media, she is unfailingly warm and polite.
She laughs easily, gives considered answers and even extends the interview of her own accord when her mum comes calling to tell her Serena is about to play.
Asked to describe her perfect day, she shakes her head apologetically. "I don't get out much. Serena gets out a lot more, while I'll just stay at home. I'm a quiet person. I like to do my thinking. I like to have my books."
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If Venus were this gracious all the time, if she chatted and laughed as readily with the other girls on the circuit, if she paid her supposed dues to the professional game by playing 10 months out of 12, if she could display a little of that Davenport-style humility, if she looked like she was enjoying herself more on court, well, then she could possibly be the sport's most popular player as well as its most potent.
Instead, she has often been described as arrogant and aloof. None of which would matter if she was ranked No. 100.
But, to many in tennis, it doesn't seem right that someone should be scooping up grand slams and millions while standing remote from the game and its players. And that goes double when they see Venus take time-out each year to continue her fashion-design studies in Florida while other players are boarding flights to Leipzig and practising backhands in their sleep.
At least part of the explanation would seem to lie in her faith. Jehovah's Witnesses see themselves as - how should we put this? - more equal than others.
They're already in the queue for the paradise-on-earth that will follow Jehovah's destruction of the present order at Armageddon. That leaves the rest of us poor schmucks misguidedly groping in the dark.
"It has a huge effect," agrees Venus, when asked about a religion that led to her door-knocking with copies of The Watchtower magazine until a couple of years ago.
"It's one of the reasons I don't play a lot. This (tennis) isn't the only thing in life, and this isn't the only life. It's just temporary. So you don't put so much importance that this is all I'm going to have and I'm never going to be in existence again."
She might also add that she doesn't place much importance on the opinions or approbation of others. And while you're digesting that, consider her answer from Melbourne last year when asked about the recent US presidential elections.
"I'm a Jehovah's Wit ness, we don't really vote. No matter what happens, we'll be all right."
It's not just tennis she has in perspective. Belief, in fact, is the leitmotif in Venus' life - her father Richard's belief that tennis offered his two youngest daughters the best way out of the gangland streets of Los Angeles and Venus' unshakeable belief in her abilities, something she puts down to the constant encouragement of her parents and being prepared for competition "all my life".
Explaining her unbounded confidence, she once noted she couldn't "remember a time I didn't feel good about myself".
And then there is her belief as a Jehovah's Witness, which contributes to her insularity on tour. "We believe in good association," said Venus some years ago, "association with fellow (Jehovah's) Witnesses, not becoming too involved with people that don't have the same beliefs and same values we do."
Responding to another question about her supposed aloofness, she said: "I'm looking to win matches, to be the best. I'm not looking for friends. You really can't find a friend these days. You have your family, you have your God, and that's about it."
Which leaves one wondering about her relationship with the game itself. She concedes she's a tennis player because her dad "chose it".
But that doesn't alter her opinion that it's a fabulous sport. One she enjoys watching on television when injured. One which, it should be said, owes her a debt of gratitude for helping to transform women's tennis into a thrilling fusion of power, grace and finesse courtesy of her 200kmh serves and explosive ground strokes.
As for being on the tour, she echoes the thoughts of wage slaves everywhere when she says it's "a great job". "Here I am, I'm 21, travelling all over the world, seeing many things, I have lots of privileges. There's no need for me to see it as pressure. And I don't."
All of which means we shouldn't expect Venus to change her ways anytime soon. The indications are that she'll still be lost to tennis by her mid-20s, if not sooner.
As Jon Wertheim, author of Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women's Tennis Tour, wrote recently: "It would shock no one if Venus decided that she had had it with tennis and was moving on to study Japanese floral arrangements, join the Marines, play minor league baseball in Birmingham, whatever."
Certainly she doesn't feel pressure to hang around to surpass the records of iron women like Steffi Graf (22 grand slams) and Martina Navratilova (18). Not that she's entirely cavalier about tennis.
Next year, following graduation, she says she'll probably play more tournaments in pursuit of the No. 1 ranking she believes is her due.
"But now that I've started, I just can't take that time off," she explains, matter-of- factly.
Not for some $1.1 million tournament in Leipzig. Not for the No. 1 ranking. Not for you or me or the WTA. Venus has her own orbit to follow.
Last edited by WilliamzX2; Jan 13th, 2002 at 01:30 AM.