It’s always a good time to talk about Venus Williams, but it’s an especially good time now. As Venus, the elder of the transcendent and world-beating Williams sisters, extends her storied career well into its fifth decade, she’s most important to the game and the larger universe of sport because of how she continues to use it.
Beleaguered with an autoimmune disease and well off her peak of Grand Slam glory, the current iteration of Williams is unbothered by rankings and results - maybe that’s the attitude you earn after winning so many matches. And as she glides toward the ripe tennis age of 41, she seems as propelled by purpose as much as she is her own private enjoyment that comes from playing a game as your job.
These days Williams makes a statement on the court just as much by showing up than by what happens when she does, but what she hasn’t stopped - even as the deep tournament runs have dwindled - is her advocacy for gender parity. The latest effort materialised last month in a personal essay published in British Vogue, and in it, she details her work that began at Wimbledon in 2000, when she went out to beat Lindsay Davenport in possibly the greatest final the women’s game has ever seen and took home the aptly named Venus Rosewater dish for winning the ladies' singles (and a sizeably smaller cheque than Pete Sampras, who won the men’s).
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She made her case in person in what has become a legendary closed-door meeting with All England Lawn and Tennis Club officials (mostly old, mostly white, mostly men) and in 2006, she penned a column for the Times detailing why the continued discrepancy relegated her to “second-class champion". It wasn’t until the next year - 2007, when she won her fourth Wimbledon title - that she took home the first equal Wimbledon pay cheque.
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Added onto her righteous fight with the French Tennis Federation and testimony in front of the ITF and it’s clear how consistent and persistent Williams’ efforts to secure equal pay at the Grand Slams has been. To this day, it is hard to describe the sequence of events that took her from a 14-year-old being roasted for her preternatural confidence on primetime American television to the vocal and impactful successor of Billie Jean King without getting more than a little teared up, and it's a shame that she hasn’t gotten a chance to enjoy the strides made during her 27 years on tour, because there are so many left to make.
Her latest column highlights just how much work tennis still has to do - the sport is still propagating pay inequality among most tournaments outside the Grand Slams (cough cough, looking at you Madrid, Cincinnati & Rome) as well as with appearance fees, and the men - whether they’re refusing to follow pandemic protocols or playacting at creating a union, but without women - aren’t much help.
A few short years ago, Novak Djokovic said women should be paid less because they garner fewer spectators (if someone would be so kind, please pass along the ratings for the 2021 Australian Open, where the Serena Williams vs. Naomi Osaka semi-final decimated those for his finals win over Daniil Medvedev a few days later). Men online have long been honourably defending tennis tradition over best-of-five-set play, arguing that equal pay should come from equal work (the women, as most know, play best of three sets) despite the fact that the women have asked to play the same over and over and been denied.
Arguably, no one should play best of five sets - the game has moved out of the grass court tennis style that necessitated it, and it’s tremendously onerous on player bodies and viewer patience - but the most obvious reason to hate it is because many fans and leaders consider the disparity in format to be the last real justification of keeping men and women from earning equal pay.
To pre-empt the response about dishonouring tennis tradition, how about a solution where everyone plays best of three in the first week of a Slam then best of five in the second? All of this is to say that if you were Venus Williams, you’d be livid at each fresh insult or surge of bad-faith online discourse. But she probably just sighs and gets on with it.
Even if you have always thought a lot of and about Venus - we’ve celebrated her efforts in the pages of Racquet and commissioned original pieces of art to celebrate her for our magazine’s cover - you do so more and more as it becomes clear that there are probably fewer and fewer opportunities to see her play.
But as it becomes clear that she’ll eventually fade out of the spotlight, she is choosing to use her time left in it to continue the work that has always felt more impactful than Grand Slam titles - making the sport a better one.
Caitlin Thompson is the co-founder of Racquet magazine and will be writing a weekly column on tennis for Eurosport.
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