Venus Ebony Starr Williams is one of a handful of tennis players to transcend sport and forge a lasting legacy on society and culture. Her dual roles as African American trailblazer and agitator for equal pay for women ensure she will be remembered for much more than her seven Grand Slam trophies or as Serena’s less successful older sister. With Wimbledon upon us, a closer look at Venus Ebony Starr Williams (5-time champion)reveals how her given names foreshadowed her greatness on the lawns of the All England Club.
Venus is, as we all learned very early in school, one of the eight planets in the solar system. Williams’ tennis exploits make for fun metaphors, along the lines of her game being from some other planet unknown to mere earthlings. As it turned out, Venus also shares a name with the Wimbledon trophy, the Venus Rosewater Dish, which Williams has hoisted five times. She’s also made eight finals and 11 quarterfinals overall. It is not hyperbole to say that Venus Williams was destined to shine at the All England Club: on grass, her game in full flight is one of the most pleasing sights in all of tennis. That she has achieved so much success at the tournament, and held that trophy so many times, seems like one of the more fitting occurrences in sport.
The legacy of the Williams sisters can never be fully grasped without factoring in their race, and what their success as African Americans in a white-dominated and elitist sport has meant for young black girls in America. As a bold, confident teenager, brandishing beads in her hair as an affront to the tennis establishment, Venus wore her blackness as a symbol of pride. Wimbledon’s all-white dress code makes her race stand out even more visually. At an event so steeped in history, and in a country responsible for centuries of colonialism and racism, her success at the All England Club is highly political, even if it isn’t her intent. Althea Gibson was the first black woman to win Wimbledon in 1957, but Venus and Serena have made it their stomping ground since 2000, winning 10 of the last 15 Championships.
A cursory inspection of Venus’ resume confirms that she is one of the biggest stars tennis has ever seen. Only five women in the last 35 years have won more Grand Slam titles than Venus’ seven: Serena, Graf, Evert, Navratilova, and Seles; that is a murderer’s row of tennis greats. Five of those titles have come at Wimbledon, the event Venus wanted to win most while growing up as a tennis prodigy. Even though Venus never played Wimbledon as a junior, and had limited experience playing on grass, she reached the quarterfinals in only her second appearance at the event. She would go on to reach the same round or better in 11 of her next 13 attempts. Venus is a tennis star, but she is an even bigger one on the grass courts at Wimbledon.
Williams is one of the most common surnames in the Unites States. But Venus and her career have been everything but ordinary. Her resume extends far beyond the tennis court, her influence on North American society so vast that she towers above most stars who have achieved similar excellence in tennis. Her hard work is partly responsible for women finally realizing pay equity at Wimbledon. She is an entrepreneur: owner of a string of Jamba Juices, part owner of the Miami Dolphins, as well as head of her own tennis clothing line. She is a black icon. She cleared the path for Serena to have it a little easier than she did, and together, they have given black kids access to a sport most would never have even considered. All these things she achieved while excelling at a high-profile tennis career. When Richard Williams and Oracene Price named their daughter, it was as if they knew she would go on to make the grass courts at Wimbledon her home away from home.
What’s in a name?
Unique, Other-wordly Black Champion: Williams, Venus Ebony Starr.
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