Venus Williams does not get as much love or attention as she once did, when she was winning tennis tournaments. But she’s lathered in it from her sister Serena Williams, who sort of inherited the role of dominating the sport from her older sibling, keeping the reign of success in the most unlikeliest of families, considering the sport.
And in a very real way, Serena has her sister to credit for the enormous run she has made that likely will end with her considered the greatest woman tennis player of all time. Serena surely is the most dominant athlete now, in any sport. Venus’ role in her emergence and continued supremacy is palatable.
She created a legacy for her younger sister, entering the 99.9 percent white sport and soaring, all the while doing so with elegance and grace. Little sister watched big sister do it the admirable way—with sportsmanship and dignity, and she followed suit, only with even more talent.
Not only that, but Venus mentored her along the way, took up for her when necessary, demanded more of her on the court and—and this is significant—has not shown any jealously about Serena’s ascension as the better player. They are each other’s best friends.
“My first job is big sister,” Venus Williams said. “I take that very seriously.”
And this sums up the relationship better than anything else.
“I always like to win,” Venus said. “But I’m the big sister. I want to make sure she has everything, even if I don’t have anything. It’s hard. I love her too much. That’s what counts.”
That kind of unconditional love and support is not common, even among siblings. But it has been an element to Serena’s rise that is invaluable. If Venus had shown envy of Serena’s success, there’s no telling how it would impact how either of them played.
But showing unwavering support has been a springboard for Serena.
“Family’s first, and that’s what matters most,” Serena has said. “We realize that our love goes deeper than the tennis game. Tennis is a game; family is forever.”
Their father, Richard Williams said “wait to you see Serena,” when Venus was winning Grand Slams. Dad was right. He had taught them the sport and trained them in Compton, Calif., where Venus said they could hear gunfire “a few streets away” as they practiced.
Their training under such conditions made them battle-tested. Venus has won seven Grand Slam championships; Serena has 19. In sister-to-sister matchups, Venus has won 11 to Serena’s 14. Serena has won six of eight Grand Slam finals against Venus.
At the end of each Williams vs. Williams match, there is a discernible sadness for the winner.
“Very awkward,” they both have said.
Together, they have won 13 Grand Slam doubles championships.
To watch Venus play in person, like at the 2000 Olympics in Australia, is to watch an athlete of beautiful technique and presence. She played with a diamond-laced tiara, which was appropriate because she was a princess on the court, controlling the action with smooth backhands, powerful volleys and an intelligent approach. She was No. 1 in the world.
But Venus has not won a major singles title in seven years, mostly because of Serena and also because of injury. And she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease which is an ongoing medical condition that affects her energy level and causes fatigue and joint pain—not good for a tennis player.
But she plays on, her head up. And listen to how she takes defeat.
“(The) losses have propelled me to even bigger places,” she said.
That’s a sage perspective for a 34-year-old.
“I understand the importance of losing,” she added. “You can never get complacent because a loss is always around the corner. It’s in any game that you’re in—a business game or whatever—you can’t get complacent.”
Venus Williams is not complacent. She’s continuing to lead her little sister in the way she plays, the way she handles herself, the way she manages losing and the way she supports her remarkable sibling.
“Sometimes in life you have to learn to deal with the cards you’ve been dealt,” she says. “I’ve been trying to get used to my new life. The good part is I know how to play tennis and I have a lot of experience, so that helps me a lot on the court.”
But Venus Williams sees life bigger than the sport she loves.
“My ambition,” she said, “is to enjoy my life and to do exactly what I want to do. And I’ll do that. I will be free.”