Homegrown record-breaking tennis star Venus Williams opens up about her hectic sporting life, her burgeoning interior-design business and her rivalry with sister Serena
By Jacquelynn D. Powers
Portraits by Toshi Tasaki
What do you do after appearing in one of the most talked-about sporting events of the year? Well, if you are Venus Williams, you head to the equally hyped Super Bowl. Just hours after suffering her fourth straight Grand Slam finals loss to her younger sister, Serena, Venus left the Australian Open and all of the media circus behind for the even bigger Tampa Bay Buccaneers-versus-Oakland Raiders Super Bowl spectacle in San Diego. And true to form, she was accompanied by Serena—her best friend, confidante and fiercest opponent.
For Venus, it was a relief to let someone else (winning Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden, perhaps) be the focus of the media’s glare. In fact, she didn’t even know who was playing in football’s biggest game of the year. “I don’t actually like football,” Venus admits. “There are so many pauses and time-outs. The game is too slow for me. It’s not at all like tennis. But my sister wanted to go, so I went.” That sisterly devotion keeps the rivalry between the world’s number-one and number-two female players not only in check, but also surprisingly amicable.
Instead, the hubbub centers on the Williams family as a whole and the media’s obsession with them. And 2002 certainly was a year full of headlines, from the sisters’ three consecutive Grand Slam finals matchups to the divorce of their parents, Richard and Oracene Williams. “People have always talked about us,” Venus acknowledges. “There has always been something to write. We’re constantly wondering what the next rumor is going to be. I don’t know what it is about us that has made people so interested. But we stay away from it. We watch tennis on mute and don’t read the papers. We only look at the pictures to see if we at least looked good. If you get too involved or emotional, you can’t concentrate on your tennis.”
Not focusing on her game isn’t an option for the 22-year-old. Nor is fixing matches, as people have accused her coach (and father), Richard, of doing. “In the beginning, Serena and I were trying to figure out how to play each other,” Venus says. “But at this point, we’re just trying to win out there. We’re playing tough. And neither one of us is giving the other an inch. It really counts. We just played a Grand Slam. And we both had four Grand Slam titles going into the Australian Open, but now Serena has five. You go down in history for a Grand Slam. That’s what we’re here for, of course, the title and the history.”
This sense of history that guides Venus is all the more immediate considering how many times and ways she and her sister have already, in fact, rewritten the history books. They’ve crushed stereotypes that reach across racial, gender and class lines. They’ve reinvented how the game physically should be played. They’ve redefined the meaning of family values. They’ve even taken on the fashion police with their darling—and increasingly daring—tennis togs. But it wasn’t an easy journey, and they still face obstacles, jealously and nasty rumors on an almost daily basis.
Venus first came onto the scene in 1994, the year she turned pro. Prior to that, the tennis world had been murmuring about a young phenom from Compton, California, and her equally talented little sister. Of course, the hype was generated by their father, a P.T. Barnum-like character who proclaimed that his daughters would be the number-one- and number-two-ranked tennis players in the world. Banking on that, in 1991, Richard Williams uprooted his family (which also includes three older, non-tennis-playing sisters) from the West Coast to Florida to have them work with tennis guru Rick Macci. Three years later, Venus made her professional debut, and not long after, Richard and Oracene assumed the coaching responsibilities of their dynamic daughters.
Despite her athleticism and impressive game, controversy surrounded Venus immediately. Her father’s bragging was hard for some to take. Venus’ aloofness turned off the other girls on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour. Finally, racist remarks allegedly flew back and forth between the players, which culminated in a media frenzy at the 1997 U.S. Open. And it didn’t help that Venus just kept getting stronger, more competitive and more accomplished. Her detractors didn’t like that she kept winning—and winning. In 1998, she won her first tournament in Oklahoma City. Later that year, she followed up with a victory at the Lipton, the Super Nine tournament on Key Biscayne (which has since been renamed the NASDAQ-100 Open after its new title sponsor).
Today, even as an undisputed champion, Venus makes bold statements that would come across as boastful if they weren’t true. But her accomplishments are based firmly in reality, and one day will be hailed as legendary. She has 28 career singles titles (including one Olympic gold medal and four Grand Slams) and 10 career doubles titles (including her second gold medal), and has earned more than $12 million in prize money. Currently, no player on the women’s tour can touch her—with the exception of top-seeded Serena.
Venus has achieved all of these feats without conforming to the WTA’s rigorous 11-month schedule, which runs from the end of December to the middle of November. “It’s just too long,” she explains. “The tour pushes you to perform. And if you pull out of a tournament, people want to crucify you. But it’s only normal to be human and want a break.” Venus and Serena do take breathers, but still manage to maintain their impressive rankings. “We stay on top, because when we do play we win,” she says. “It’s not often that we lose. That helps us even though we don’t play as much as the next person. And some players haven’t been as fortunate in being able to make enough money. They’re on the tour trying to make a living so they need to play 11 months out of the year.”
Instead, the sisters have found other outlets in which to channel their creativity. Serena has dabbled in acting, while Venus opened her own interior-design firm last November. Located in their hometown of Palm Beach Gardens, V Starr Interiors (which is a nod to her full name, Venus Ebony Starr Williams) has garnered much attention because of the whiff of celebrity the firm exudes. But Venus, who was certified as an interior decorator last year and is a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, hopes that her artistic eye will win over both curious customers and naysayers alike. “We have to make sure that people are legitimately interested in interior design and it’s not just a meet-and-greet,” she acknowledges. “But I’ve always loved design. And this area is growing so much. Why should I wait five years until all of the growth is finished? So I decided to make it happen.”
Venus hired interior designer Bonnie Nathan to assist with the business and their impressive vstarrinteriors.com website when she is away. Together, they oversee a handful of clients and participate in design expos, including next month’s American Red Cross Designers’ Show House in West Palm Beach. “Something has to keep my attention, and it has to be interesting,” she says. “I love all kinds of art, from fashion to painting. Maybe tennis can be an art, too. With tennis, things are always different. Every match and every point are different; the cities are different. And with interior design, every client is different. Someone once told me they wanted to do mountain modern; I had never thought of doing mountain modern, but it’s a challenge. My style isn’t trendy. I’m inspired by historic styles, whether it’s baroque or Greek revival. History really excites me.”
Although she is earning her associate’s degree in fashion design from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Venus is mainly self-taught and relies on books for her education. In fact, she is often found buried in a book between matches. “Recently, someone was talking about mergers and acquisitions, which I know absolutely zero about,” she admits. “I am pretty educated about a lot of things in life, but that was one thing I didn’t know about. So I had to pick up an economics book.” However, she only made it to the fourth chapter due to her success at the Australian Open. But running the interior-design firm has not been too complicated: “I’ve always had a business mind because my mom and dad taught us to be business-oriented. It feels natural.”
Venus also always has been fashionable. When she and Serena began playing tennis, they caused just as much of a stir for their signature beaded locks as they did for their powerful serves. Now, they may have ditched the beads and braids, but their style is just as eye-catching with their skimpy, customized outfits and sparkling jewelry. “If I can’t accessorize, I can’t play well,” Venus says. “I have to have my necklace and earrings. I wear wrist tape now, so I can’t wear bracelets like I used to.” (Venus is furthering the fashion cause with her own line of women’s leather apparel, which she designs for Wilsons Leather.) Still, she has been more sedate lately, while Serena caused a sensation at last year’s U.S. Open with her skintight catsuit. “Off the court, Serena is the more traditional one,” notes Venus, who prefers Dries Van Noten and Cacharel. “She wears solid colors, and a lot of black. And I wear all of the fun stuff. I hate to be a clone; if anything is a fad, for sure I won’t buy it.”
Venus and Serena’s differences don’t stop there. “I am more serious,” Venus comments. “But I have a sense of humor. My whole family are comedians; we all laugh and joke. But Serena is more extroverted. She likes to go places and meet people. I do go out but get tired quite early. I’m not a candidate for anything that happens after 9. I’d rather sit at home and watch a movie or read a book. Serena’s always ready to go.” Fortunately, they balance each other out, which comes in handy when they are traveling the globe together and scooping up more and more trophies. “I’ve been spoiled because I have my mom and sister on the tour, and often my other sister and dad. It’s a whole support team. I’ve heard other people say that the tour is a lonely place.”
It also takes the pressure off, as does being coached by Richard and Oracene: “I wouldn’t be able to deal with a traditional coach, because after the match they’d want to talk about strategy and my next opponent. I couldn’t handle that. After a match, we just eat, rest and joke around. We talk about tennis at practice and that’s it. Before a match, you see a lot of players talking and strategizing with their coaches. I walk out of the locker room and go out there alone. I get to think for myself.” However, this insular world Venus has created with her family has actually caused animosity with the other players. “I can’t exactly say I’m friends with the other girls,” she divulges. “I’m friendly, but I don’t have their phone numbers. All of the girls are nice, but everybody has a little something to say.”
Nor does she take herself seriously as a tennis star. “Maybe I don’t have a normal job or existence, but I’m a regular person,” she declares. “It’s important for me and Serena to be normal, and not to think of ourselves as special people. If I expect to be treated differently then I’m going to need a major reality check in the future. That happens to many stars. I’ve seen tennis players who get a little crazy and think that they are all that, which they aren’t. It’s nice to get those extraspecial privileges, but I don’t expect them. I’m not buying Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Some people get caught up with that.”
Venus faces a rigorous spring schedule, which will take her from Antwerp to California to Berlin. And from March 19th to 30th, she will call Key Biscayne home as she attempts to win her fourth title at the NASDAQ-100 Open. Last year, she met Serena in the finals and lost in two straight sets. Despite that outcome, this is still one of her favorite tournaments: “It’s great because it’s at home. I’ve always enjoyed the event and put it on my schedule. Actually, it was the first big tournament I ever won. I was 17 and so excited. I have some great memories over the years.” She also has posted some extraordinary records: her serve, clocked at 124 miles per hour, is the fastest among women players in Key Biscayne history.
Venus and Serena will play next in the Fed Cup in April against the Czech Republic. Not only do they get to represent their country, but they also will be coached by one of the greats in women’s tennis, Billie Jean King. There’s also Venus’ role as a WTA player representative for the top 20 women on the tour, a position she takes seriously. (“If it weren’t for the players, there wouldn’t be a tour. We’re trying to make a difference, but change is always hard.” She also will spend 2003 working on her burgeoning interior-design firm, which she plans to expand with a product line of bedding and table settings. Despite her new venture, Venus’ tennis career will remain her number-one priority: “I’m pretty young as far as tennis is concerned. If you take care of yourself, exercise and prevent injuries, it’s possible to play quite a while. But most players are burnt out by the time they’re 27. I should be able to play for a long time because I’m not wearing myself out. When I was younger, I would to have play harder because I used to miss all the time. I would always have to go three sets and play these tough matches. Now, when I get to the third set I’m kind of shocked.