She had developed the debilitating Sjogrens’ Disease in 2011 and, in 2014, she failed to get past the third round of any Grand Slam. But, of course, second guessing Venus or, indeed, her sister Serena, has proved to be one of the most useless pursuits in sports.
This year at Wimbledon, Venus has reached the semi finals at the age of 36, her best showing since reaching the final in 2009. Harking back to her halcyon years, the five time champion outhit the experienced Yaroslava Shvedova 7-6, 6-2. She has now reached the quarter finals or better 12 times, first achieving the feat in 1998, a year after she started to make people believe in her father’s predictions by reaching the final of the US Open.
And, of course, the predictions Richard Williams had uttered when talking to a group of local reporters at the run-down courts his daughters practiced on in Compton, one of the least salubrious neighborhoods in Los Angeles, were outrageous….absurd….really silly.
The two little girls he was presenting to the press, then aged 10 and 9, were BOTH going to win Wimbledon, he said. They were BOTH going to be No 1 in the world, he said. “Great!” said the reporters. “Good luck Mr Williams.”
Actually, Richard and Oracene Williams didn’t need much luck. They made their own. They proceeded to do everything the critics said they should not, or could not, do.
They quickly removed the girls from junior tennis events. Even Rick Macci, the expert coach they hired in 1991, told them they were crazy. Everyone needs match practice. But Oracene told me once, “It wasn’t a problem about race; it was just the attitude of so many of the aggressive parents. The atmosphere was so unpleasant. We didn’t want the girls exposed to it.”
But thanks to Richard beating the drum, the word spread out of Compton and, eventually, Venus received a wild card to play in a WTA tournament at Oakland, California in October 1994. Not having hit a competitive ball in three years, she went out and beat Shaun Stafford of South African, ranked No 50 in the world at the time, in the first round. Then, in the second, she took a set off Arantxa Sanchez Vicario,
You weren’t supposed to be able to do that. Not at 14 with no competitive match play. But Richard wasn’t listening. At a memorable press conference following her win over Stafford, Mr Williams clenched his fist and shouted, “Let’s hear it for the ghetto!”
“Oh, no,” I heard some reporters mutter. Some WTA officials winced. The air was thick with excitement, anticipation and, yes, apprehension. What were we going to get? Word was already out that Serena, who was trailing behind Venus that week like a little sister, had even more talent. So a lot of observers expected her to follow Venus onto the tour and push the WTA age eligibility limits as far as they would go, by playing as often as they could.
Wrong. “I always told them – school first,” Richard told me. “I always insisted they get their priorities right.”
Who can now argue that they haven’t? “Richard and Oracene have done everything right,” says John Lloyd, who had an insider’s view of women’s tennis when he was married to – and occasionally coaching – Chris Evert. “They have been incredible and the results speak for themselves. To my mind, theirs is the greatest story in sports – ever.”
At Macci’s bidding, the family moved to Florida and he worked with them from 1991 to 1995. I visited his academy in Boca Raton last year and talked about the girls. “What struck me first was their mental attitude,” he said. “They would run over broken glass to get to the ball – time and time again.”
And he was speaking literally. Back in Compton, there was broken glass; and discarded syringes and, once or twice, the sound of gunfire. Lloyd remembers Richard asking him to come and hit with the sisters before they left California. “Would you mind coming over to my side of town?” he asked, only partially in jest.
Richard Williams remains one of the most extraordinary personalities I have ever met. A big, gruff, burly man who would never win a beauty contest, he revealed another side to his character that week in Oakland by inviting a bag lady in off the street and sitting her down in the lobby of the hotel. He proceeded to speak earnestly with her for half an hour.
That was nothing out of the ordinary for him. When he became a regular visitor to Wimbledon he would spend much of the day chatting to the cleaners and the RAF and Army personnel who act as stewards during the championships.
Only last year, Rick Leach, the top doubles player from Newport Beach who had been invited to hit with Venus when she was 12, found himself sitting next to Richard at a tournament. “I was always a bit of afraid of him early on but he started chatting with us and was charming,” said Leach. “What he has achieved with his daughters is totally amazing.”
Before Macci appeared on the scene, Richard and Oracene, neither of whom had ever picked up a racket in their lives, had been doing it all out of a book. But later, I discovered quite by chance, that Richard had an adviser.
Walking into one of the hospitality suites at the Miami Open one year, I found him sitting in a corner with Jack Kramer. “Ah! so now you know,” Richard growled. “Jack here – he’s my man.”
It was typical of Kramer, the godfather of professional tennis, that he would take time to help out. Using the proverbial back of an envelope, he was sketching angles for returns of serve. “Richard calls me occasionally, so I offer what advice I can,” Jack told me. None better.
As the sisters have grown and become rich by winning everything there is to win and achieving unimaginable success, some things have become clear.
Firstly, they adore each other. The fact that they have had to play each other in eight Grand Slam finals has never, for a moment, impinged on their relationship.
Secondly, they are completely different personalities. Venus summed it up here at Wimbledon this week. “We’re every different because she wears it on her sleeve and I don’t.”
Thirdly, for all Serena’s diva moments, these are two well rounded women who have interests far removed from tennis. Serena loves the acting world and may well end up working in Hollywood while Venus is already CEO of her design company VStarr.
And then there is what the women’s game – indeed women’s sports – owes Venus for her work behind the scenes. In 2005, the same week she went on to defeat Lindsay Davenport in Wimbledon’s longest ever women’s final 4-6, 7-6, 9-7, Venus volunteered to address the Grand Slam Committee on the subject of equal prize money.
Looking elegant and composed, Venus waited her turn to speak and then asked this group of tennis leaders to close their eyes and envisage a little girl working and striving to become the best she could and then discovering that she was not considered worth the same as a little boy. Instead of haranguing them, Venus emphasized the social aspects of not paying women the same as men and the message it sent.
Larry Scott, who was CEO of the WTA at the time, said afterwards, “It was one of the most stunning, poignant, powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in a business meeting.”
It was followed by an essay that Venus, with some help from WTA staff – she called it a collective effort – wrote for the London Times. She talked about the absence of equal prize money devaluing “the principle of meritocracy and diminishing years of hard work.”
Its impact was such that questions were asked in the House of Commons and, two years later, Wimbledon established the principle of paying their men and women competitors exactly the same.
So, as a role model, Venus ticks every box in the book. She has offered a prime example of how to overcome adversity because, as she admits without wishing to dwell on it, her road, in recent years, has not been easy. It took strength of will, a strict adherence to diet and the support of loving parents to keep her illness under control.
This week she admitted the most difficult part was feeling that she was not totally in control. “But I always felt I had the game,” she said. “You have to let fear go and believe in yourself.”
Earlier, she had spoken about being able to achieve your dreams. “This is so, so wonderful,” she said. “Every human being needs that sense of accomplishment and the sense of having worked for something and achieving it. That’s kind of what we’re here for in some ways.”
More prosaically, Venus was there to play doubles which she and Serena were scheduled to do shortly after they had both reached the semi-finals.
“We love the doubles,” Venus said.
What a team they make.