A few weeks ago, a black woman won Wimbledon. She beamed as she received her trophy in the stands. Venus Williams; 2016 Wimbledon doubles champion. She’s still got it.
As her younger sister Serena has marched her way toward G.O.A.T status, it’s become all too easy to lose track of Venus. Yet it’s only in comparison with her sister that Venus seems inconsequential.
Aside from Serena, Venus is the most successful women’s tennis player currently active. In a career that has spanned two decades, a list of her achievements include seven grand slam tournament victories and 49 singles tournament wins in all, more than anyone currently playing (who’s not named Serena Williams). She won Olympic singles gold at Sydney, won the WTA year-end tournament in 2008, and she and Serena are three-time Olympic doubles champions.
In what will likely her final Olympics, Venus has had a resurgent year. Currently ranked No 6 in the world, she reached the semi-final of a Grand Slam this year (Wimbledon) for the first time since 2010. Her renaissance is remarkable for two reasons: she is 36, an age by which many of her early contemporaries have long since retired; and she was diagnosed in 2011 with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder.
Regardless of whether Venus wins another Olympic medal or Grand Slam (she was eliminated from the singles in Rio) the sport of tennis owes her a great deal of gratitude. While Venus was not the first black tennis player to win a Grand Slam – that was the legendary Althea Gibson, followed by Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah, and Serena, who won the US Open in 1999 – she is still a pathbreaker in her own right.
Some argue that Venus transformed the sport, turning it into the power game it is now, but I don’t think that’s wholly correct. Venus perfected the old game; Serena reshaped the new. Venus mastered tennis’s rules and norms to such a degree that the only way to beat her at her peak was to change the game, as her sister did. Nothing makes this more clear than Venus’ record at Wimbledon.
Wimbledon is largely seen as the most important tournament in the tennis calendar. Formal and rigid, the tournament has an almost sacred status, conferred through its unique rituals: the all-white dress code; the self-policed hush on Centre Court before points; the curtsy or bow to the Royal Box.
Since the late 1980’s, it’s been the only Slam to be played on grass. Playing well on this fast surface required everything that tennis purists prize: grace; strong serves; quick reflexes at the net; fast footwork. Until recently, it was where the best players of any given generation thrived. Pete Sampras was imperious at SW19 (but never won the French Open). Roger Federer’s game also best suits grass. Success at Wimbledon so thoroughly equalled mastering the game that even serious fans can forget how well tennis greats did at other Slams.
So when Venus was at her peak, it mattered that she performed best at Wimbledon. Her serve was strong, her net skills impeccable. She couldn’t be demeaned as a one-trick pony who overperformed at her home Slam. She wasn’t a clay court specialist who was a non-factor as soon as the French Open was done. And she didn’t fluke a Wimbledon title. She won five.
That the Wimbledon trophy already had her name on it – the Ladies’ singles champion is presented with the Venus Rosewater Dish – is a fitting, though coincidental, tribute to her monumental achievements at the place where whiteness was so prized that the players must dress in it. To do all of this as a black woman is revolutionary.
Before turning professional as a young teenager, Venus had had a scintillating junior career. She was first on the scene with the beads and braids hairstyle so familiar to black people and foreign to others. Venus was the first person I saw playing any professional sport who looked like me. She was black, she was young, she had braids, and she was fierce. I knew of Althea Gibson, I knew of Arthur Ashe, but I didn’t grow up with them. I grew up with Venus.
So when you watch Venus at Rio 2016, remember that’s she’s a pioneer, not an afterthought. From the beginning, she showed us that black girls could be black girls and still play tennis. In the middle of her career, she insisted that women should receive equal pay. And now she’s skipping past ageist notions of how long women can play at the highest level. Through it all, Venus has kept opening the door for countless girls like her – not least Serena – to thrive in the sport. She has been the consummate elder stateswoman, tennis’s ultimate big sister.
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Christienna Fryar is a professor, historian, and pop culture junkie. She is from Virginia, lives in Buffalo, NY, and calls Durham, NC and London home. Twitter: @jamaicandale
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