venus on the verge

words: chloé cooper jones
photography: justin lane/epa

The greatest match I ever saw Venus Williams play was this past March against fellow tour veteran Jelena Jankovic. It was the first match for Williams at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 tournament, held 100 miles from her hometown of Compton. After grueling months of crossing the globe, players relish the opportunity to play at home and often have their best tournament results in front of a friendly crowd. The image of Venus winning on this court should be a familiar one, but it isn’t. She had been conspicuously absent for over a decade.

 

As daylight waned, long shadows patterned the court. The packed crowd erupted in applause as Williams emerged from the tunnel, smiling to herself almost shyly. The crowd waved American flags and personalized signs; one read, “Welcome home, Venus.”

 

The match began poorly for Williams. Her serve was broken immediately and then again. She assumed the posture of the defeated, moving slowly in between points, shaking her head. By the end of the first set, shadows crept across the court, leaving illuminated only the spot where Williams stood—alone, squinting into the sun, waiting to receive serve from Jankovic.

 

Venus has a way of embodying and rendering visible singular emotions. When she’s competing at her highest level, her six-foot-one frame becomes a physical representation of pure ferocity. In victory, her joy is so full, so immediate; she twirls, skips, and beams with a happiness that leaves a viewer searching for the last time they felt anything so completely. But in that moment, at that last point of the first set, every part of her looked tired. Her exhaustion carries with it a reminder of her age—she turned 37 this year, making her one of the oldest tennis pros ever—and also a reminder that Williams battles Sjogren’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that, among other symptoms, induces fatigue and increases inflammation and soreness in her muscles and joints.

 

Williams lost that first set badly, 1-6. The crowd was hushed. Their expectations, along with the desert sun above, blazed a spotlight onto Williams. They needed her to win so that they could have a chance to celebrate her at long last, to make amends for past mistakes. In 2001, false rumors of match fixing circulated after Venus, citing injury, withdrew four minutes before she was set to play the semifinal at Indian Wells against sister Serena. When Serena took the court for her finals match against Belgian Kim Clijsters, she met with vitriol from the crowd. Richard Williams claimed that he and Venus were met with racial slurs as they made their way to their seats. The Williams sisters boycotted the tournament fifteen years until Serena returned in 2015. Venus’s 2016 return, undercut by a loss in her opening round of play, was further marred by sexist comments from the tournament’s longtime director, Raymond Moore, who told the press that year that female players “ride on the coattails of men” and that they should “go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born.”

 

Racism and sexism are part of the landscape from which Venus Williams has carved her silhouette. The night before the 2005 Wimbledon finals, Venus wasn’t resting, practicing, or pacing to calm her nerves. Instead, she was at a meeting with the various Grand Slam tournament directors making the case that women’s prize money should be equal to that of their male counterparts. Billie Jean King had fought for this in the 1970s; she successfully convinced the US Open to offer equal prize money in 1973. But the lack of continual pressure meant that other tournaments took far longer to adopt these changes. Wimbledon, the most storied and revered stop on the tour, was the last holdout. In 2005, it offered women 95% of what the men’s made, a difference so small that it could only be understood as symbolic.

 

The next day, Williams beat familiar rival Lindsay Davenport in a three-hour match that is rightly referred to as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time. Despite Williams’s arguments before the Grand Slam directors, Wimbledon continued to pay out a smaller amount to female winners in 2006. But Williams refused to accept defeat. She penned an op-ed in the London Times which garnered so much attention that even Tony Blair weighed in on the issue, stating that he was unequivocally in favor equal prize money. In 2007, Williams was back in the finals, this time playing to become the first woman in Wimbledon history to take home as much as the male victor. She won again.

 

Williams lost her serve again early in the second set; Jankovic took advantage and jumped to a 4-1 lead. It seemed like the match would all be over in twenty minutes or so. I didn’t want to watch anymore. I left the stadium and went to walk the surrounding grounds. The sun was setting and the sky showed off all imaginable shades of pink; Indian Wells is referred to as “Tennis Paradise” because of these hues. A huge screen projected the match to people on the lawn outside the stadium. They looked drunk and glum. I figured I’d eat some dinner and then trudge back for the press conference where Williams would shrug and say she hoped to be back next year and get a win at Indian Wells after all these years away. But we’d know that at her age, a stop at Indian Wells next year was by no means guaranteed.

 

While I was in a concessions line, I heard voices on the lawn begin to shout, then came a dense roar from the stadium crowd. I turned to the big screen. Williams had broken back, held serve, and had evened the score. I ran to the stadium. Back in the press box, I made no pretense of journalistic neutrality: I cheered and stomped my feet as Williams, staving off match points, forced a second set tiebreak that she narrowly won. There would be a third and deciding set. I badly wanted Williams to win here, now. as a push back against age and illness, a push back against the sexism of Ray Moore and the racism hurled at her here and elsewhere. Indian Wells should have always been her court. But a win here wasn’t just a reclaiming of home.

 

From that point on, Williams dominated, pushing Jankovic all around the court and hitting groundstrokes right through the misfiring Jankovic forehand. Williams took the set 6-1, a neat inverted bookend to her first set breakdown. Jankovic shook her head in disbelief, unsure of how she’d let it go so wrong so quickly. Williams raised her arms in victory. People stood in their seats. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” blasted from the sound system.

 

For the first time in sixteen years, Williams stood in victory and addressed the crowd at Indian Wells. “It felt awesome having you guys behind me when it wasn’t going so well,” she said. And the crowd that longed to claim her as their own shouted back its adoration.

 

“You were born and raised in Southern California,” said her interviewer into his microphone. “This is your home. We love you here.”

 

These words were more than a decade overdue and, along with this win, served as a reminder of what we might, in 2017, take for granted: Williams has endured, even at her home tournament, more resistance, more prejudice, than any of her contemporaries, male or female. Her sister, Serena, has been subjected to much of the same prejudices, but it was Venus who was first through the door, arriving on the pro tour in 1994, a tall, black, fourteen-year-old who wore beads in her hair that made music when she walked and she hit groundstrokes so hard her opponents ducked as if punches were coming across the net. She was a burst of cool, stylish and new, breaking up a culture that was initially ready to reject her.

 

Williams would go on to win a few more matches at Indian Wells before bowing out in the quarterfinals. There wouldn’t be too much more about it in the press. It wasn’t the best I’d ever seen Venus play and her opponent, in the end, didn’t put up a great fight. But it’s the “averageness” of this win that makes it so great, because it reminds us that there is no such thing as a routine win or loss for Venus Williams. She’s had to fight racism, sexism, illness, and now age just to hold her place on the court. She is a body always under attack and her matches unfold within that context.

 

And here’s a further bit of astounding context: Williams enters her nineteenth US Open this week on a shortlist of favorites to take the title. She’s one of the greatest champions of our time and you’re alive, able to tune in and bear witness.