At 2017’s Australian Open Women’s singles final, Rod Laver arena was a sea of red, white and blue. US flags were draped over shoulders and painted onto the cheeks of supporters, all of whom understood they were in the presence of rarified greatness. While Serena Williams’ presence in a Grand Slam final had long come to be expected, to see her sister Venus Williams on the other side of the net was more surprising.
After being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome in 2011 – an autoimmune disease that left her heavily fatigued and experiencing muscle and joint pain – Venus had chosen to prioritise her recovery away from the court. In the years that followed, critics were quick to count her out. Emerging on the pro circuit were fresh, young players, finding form and fine-tuning their skills alongside the sport’s greats. And there was Venus, a titan of the game, but one who seemed to wear the scars of years spent leading from the frontlines: a player who had opened the door for all women to follow, who had campaigned tirelessly for equality so that in 2007, when she took the singles championship at Wimbledon, she became the first female to be paid the same as the male winner.
As fans watched Venus on the court at that 2017 Australian Open final, they saw a woman primed for battle, one who had been raised to expect hard knocks in life, but was so certain of her self-worth that nothing could throw her off balance. It was Serena who took the title, but it was Venus who won the crowd.
“[My parents] wanted us to be good human beings and be able to survive in this world. It’s a beautiful world, but it’s hard out there. You’re going to go through hard times. There are going to be beautiful times, but you’ve got to be able to roll with the punches,” Venus tells WH. “You have to be able to enjoy the battle. [Our parents] just wanted us to enjoy life, and tennis was a by-product of that.”
Venus has seven Grand Slam singles titles to her name, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles alongside Serena, and 49 career titles. She’s also launched successful businesses – a plant-based superfood company, Happy Viking; full-service design company, V Starr; and EleVen by Venus Williams, an activewear brand that launched the Privilege Tax Initiative to fight for equal pay for all women. Though it might sound like she’s reached the pinnacle of success in every endeavour, for Venus it’s all about the process, developing new skills and the lessons learned along the way.
As she looks to return to the Aus Open this month, Venus opens up about her version of manifestation, behind-the-scenes sacrifice and why she loves being in the aunt club.
Is there a Grand Slam match that stands out for you as being the most memorable?
Venus Williams: “Each match leads to another. I like to say I’ve learned from every single match at every stage of my career. The winning starts long before you lift a trophy. People get to see that fun part, that end product, but it’s the years and the hours that you put into it, the dedication, the blood, sweat and tears, the hard days on the court, the days you don’t want to be there, the days you’d rather be at a party. It’s all those things that really add up to that one moment in time, so to speak. And I’ve been lucky enough to have more than one moment.”
What do you love most about playing at the Australian Open?
Venus Williams: “Whenever I come to Australia, if we lose, we don’t leave early. We end up staying for almost the entire [tournament]. We just enjoy ourselves: eat at restaurants, go to the beach, shop, hang out with friends. We don’t leave. It’s not just me – all the players love Australia. I grew up playing this tournament – there are so many memories.”
Can you share some lessons your parents instilled in you?
Venus Williams: “Setting goals was huge for my dad. He always had us writing down our goals [and] working on things like visualising. Back then it was just called ‘setting a goal’ – ‘manifesting’ [makes it sound] somehow mystical. But there’s nothing mystical about it: you get a goal, you work real hard towards it, sometimes you fall short, you re-evaluate, set another goal, figure out what didn’t work… and you keep on grinding. My mum was all about strength and raising strong women, confident women, women who could do things for themselves. She always said, ‘Never ask anyone for anything. Do it yourself.’ She also raised us with values of respect, honesty, truth, keeping your word.”
How was it navigating the pro circuit alongside Serena?
Venus Williams: “It’s really all we know. It’s been the best and most amazing blessing and experience to do it with my sister and my family there with me. We didn’t need anything else, we had each other. And we had a good time. Win, lose or draw, we had fun.”
What changes have you seen in how female athletes are celebrated and recognised?
Venus Williams: “It’s so exciting, but I want sport for women to accelerate faster and for there to be more opportunities for women in all kinds of sports. There have been great opportunities for women in tennis for a long time, but now it’s time to up the ante. It’s been great to see sports like women’s basketball have amazing attendance this summer in the [US], and it’s great to see international sports like soccer gaining traction and the women’s World’s Cup being amazing.”
Photography: Maggie Zulovic. Styling: EleVen by Venus Williams. Hair: Ro Morgan. Make-up: Karina Orozco