BY CAROLYN LAWRENCE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM SANDLER
Legendary tennis star Venus Williams will always be known as the first African American player to be ranked number one in the world. (For pros, it’s apparently all about Grand Slams; as winner of seven, including five Wimbledon titles, she has that base covered.) Add to that an incredible 41 WTA tour titles, three Olympic gold medals and career prize winnings totalling in excess of $27 million, and her place in tennis history is – like the woman who earned it – well assured.
Combining focus, fierce determination and heroic physical prowess, she spent her teenage years clawing her way to the top-ranked position, winning numerous championships and breaking records. To date her universally feared 129 mph serve is the fastest ever recorded in women’s tennis.
But that’s just the tennis. She currently has nine global sponsors behind her. Off the court Venus is a successful author, creative designer, entrepreneur and fashion icon as well as being the founding ambassador for the WTA UNESCO Gender Equality Program and has fought for equal pay for female athletes.
The young entrepreneur is also a uniquely creative designer, decorator and owner of V Starr Interiors, a successful interior design firm based in Palm Beach Gardens,Florida. In 2007, Venus launched her clothing line “EleVen,” the largest clothing ever launched by a female athlete. And prior to that worked with Reebok on her collaboration with famed designer Diane Von Furstenberg for her line of tennis clothes (the largest endorsement ever awarded to a woman athlete, at $40 million for five years).
We tracked Venus down during her crazy training season to see just what it takes to build an unshakeable confidence on and off the court.
How did you get to where you are today?
My story really starts with my parents. They gave us all the skills, not only me, but I have 3 older sisters and one younger sister and they gave us all the skills to do what we do today.
Our parents were a huge influence on all of us, family was huge for us, it still is. It’s been our base, we were told that our sisters are our best friends. So it was a family of women, 6 against 1. So we had the majority vote most of the time, I don’t know how he did it, but my dad really had a philosophy about things. He really gave us this entrepreneurial kind of mind and really did a lot.
My mom was a lot about balance, she’s extremely determined, a super nice person. My mom gave us that spiritual balance and just really a wonderful role model as a woman for all of us sisters. And together I think they really balance each other out. When one of them was being too hard, the other one was, you know kind of taking up the slack.
At what age did you first pick up a tennis racket?
I was about 3 years old when I first started playing. My dad had a vision that we would be great tennis players, and he read books about the game and taught himself. He then starting teaching us, and I loved it and was good from a young age.
What do you love about being on court?
The competition and knowing that when I play well I will win. And I want to be ahead of the curve.
We believe confidence is a critical element to women’s success and you certainly show it on and off the court, is this something you’ve always had, or have you earned it?
Confidence comes with preparation and meeting your goals. It also comes through the journey of success.
I believe to gain confidence, sports are instrumental, I encourage all young people to play sports. Of course it benefits everyone, of every age, but when you’re young it really teaches you these lessons of how you can push yourself, setting goals, achieving them, when you have a setback, really evaluating why and then making those changes to be successful. Those are lessons in life that are so invaluable. At the time when you’re a young person you don’t really realize, per se, you’re learning those lessons, but it’s really set in this pattern in life of hard work and dedication and learning and getting up when you fall down.
In business, we often call those who help us advance a champion. Would you say your father has been yours?
My family is my champion. They are my coaches to this day, they are still working with us. My dad was usually on the court, but my mom would come out too. And if you know anything about my dad, you know that he can be this outspoken guy at times. He’s kind of calmed down a lot in the last few years. And my mom is this person on in the background smiling and you always see her clapping when there’s a good point even when the opponent won and sometimes you see her falling asleep in the stands (Laughter).
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way to the top of your field?
First and foremost: Always believe in yourself! But there are a number of great lessons I’ve learned over the years.
CREATIVITY: There are always people who change the game. Steffi Graf and Monica Seles blew everyone off the court in their time. And the next wave, Serena and I were privileged enough to bring a new kind of power game… And really they say Serena and I changed the game, but it was actually my dad behind the scenes who changed the game with new footwork. It’s amazing what can be done when you approach the same thing but with a new solution.
HARD WORK, my parents taught us by example. My dad taught us a lot of hard work and most of all, is not to be afraid of hard work. You can’t be afraid to get in there and get your elbow wet. And you got to enjoy the challenge, just enjoy the battle.
DETERMINATION is extremely important. One of my mottos is, there’s always a way. There’s no such thing as not a way. I’m going to find a way and in my life I have never not found a way. So one of my mottos which I would like to share with you and then you can make a part of your life also is find a way.
One of the most important things is to LOVE WHAT YOU DO. There’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and knowing that you love what you do that day and you’re ready for that challenge and you’re going to embrace it and you’re going to enjoy that battle.
VISUALIZATION was a huge part of what we did. And I use those techniques off of the court too and maybe its not necessarily complete visualization, but a lot of it would be writing down my goals. Really be preparing for what the next step might be.
“I remember the first time I wonWimbledon, my dad told me to go out there to the stadium court and just visualize. No crowds were in there, I just walked out there on the court, sit down and its really a serine moment because you’re in the Wimbledon Stadium. You walk out on the court and there’s no one there, it’s just you and the birds. And I sat there and I thought about what it would take for me to win this tournament and (closes her eyes) visualize myself on that match point, how would I handle that pressure. Visualize myself down break point and how would I come back from that and different things like that. Just all by myself, so he really taught us how to prepare. PREPARATION IS KEY.”
My latest thing now is know the play. One of my strengths as a player on the court is I know the play. Even though I seems like this really tall, big, dominating bully on the court that I’m just over powering people in the back of my head I am taking in all these different things that are happening on the court at that moment. So if one person hits the ball on me and ok great shot, but I am kind of watching to see if they will do that again and if they do it a second time, then that’s the play. I know the play. I know what they’re doing. I know who my opponents are before they one on the court. I know what I’m up against and I’ve prepared 110% before I get out there. And if I have something that’s kind of going against me like an injury per say, how do I combat that, how can I be prepared to be ready for that kind of thing.
What has been your biggest obstacle?
Injuries have always been my biggest obstacle.
What is balance to you?
We had a really good balance growing up. My dad he was very… he was really interesting, there’s so many stories. If you read my book Come to Win there’s a lot of them in there about how my dad would teach us. But what I recall the most is my very first job was at 3 years old (Laughter) I know it’s not child labour (Laughter) but he had us delivering phonebooks, as a family we all had to deliver phonebooks. From the very beginning he had us working and instilling these values of hard work and really knowing that you have to do something for yourself and you start right from the very beginning.
What does life look like after tennis?
Today, I can say that I absolutely love what I do, I love tennis, I love design, so that makes it easy for me to be motivated.
My parents taught me to be really well-rounded and to be more than just an athlete. In my late teens, I realized that I love design and it was something that I wanted to pursue. So life after tennis I will be furthering my clothing and interior design companies, EleVen and Vstarr Interiors.
What do you hope aspiring female athletes and emerging leaders in any field learn from you as a role model?
Stay true to yourself, and always believe in yourself and what you’re doing, no matter what others might say.