Venus Williams Interview: Courting Couture
The tennis megastar and fashionista comes to St. Louis and bares all on winning, losing and believing in your dreams.
On the tennis court, Venus Williams has never been one to do things the ordinary way (case in point: the “bare-all” lace corseted tennis dress she sported at the 2010 French Open). And, from the looks of her recent off-the-court endeavors—a new athlete-inspired book, the expansion of her design firm, V Starr Interiors, and new heights for her sporty clothing label, EleVen—she’s not about to start now.
The first African-American ever to reach the No. 1 ranking as a professional in men’s or women’s tennis, Williams was already turning heads at age 14, when she exploded into the professional tennis scene and beat the No. 50 player in the world in her very first match. Williams’ doubles pairings and rivaled matchups with sister, Serena, have kept the tennis world abuzz to this day, as the bold, sassy and undeniably sexy duo continue to playfully challenge the game’s stodgy status quo.
Seven Grand Slam singles championships and three Olympic Gold Medals later, Williams is still operating with the same, fierce drive and anything-goes attitude with which she started. And even though she is channeling this same energy to reach new heights outside the tennis court, Venus’ new book, “Come to Win” clearly states: She’s not retiring anytime soon!
With just one day back in her Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., home following the French Open before jet setting to London to begin training for Wimbledon (She’ll hit St. Louis July 10 for a match against the St. Louis Aces and a signing at Leftbank Books), the stylish Williams slowed down a pace to chat with ALIVE, proving that she’s not afraid to “bare it all” in more ways than one.
ALIVE: You’ve said before that Compton, Calif., where you grew up, isn’t exactly the most likely place to breed tennis stars. How did you make it happen?
Venus Williams: I started tennis when I was four, so it’s always been a lifestyle for me. I don’t even remember the first time I picked up a racquet. I practiced at least five hours a day, every single day of the year from a really young age. I was good at it, too, so that definitely helped. My parents always told me I would be at the top of the ranks. That was the whole philosophy I was taught growing up; It was never really a question.
ALIVE: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
VW: Always be positive and know that you have to put the work in. Do something that you love, and most importantly, always believe in yourself–never doubt. That’s not always easy, I know. It’s a work-in-progress for me.
ALIVE: What’s it like to have your parents as coaches?
VW: They’re great coaches, and lucky for me, they know what they’re doing. They’re my parents, and I respect them as my parents and as my coaches. I don’t have any problems separating the two.
ALIVE: You and your sister, Serena, seem super close—competing with each other and against each other, and most recently going into business together with your investment in the Miami Dolphins [the sisters became limited ownership partners in the team in August of 2009]. How do you balance that fine line between sisterhood and professional rivalry?
VW: When we play the match, we play the match, and we don’t take what happens off the court. It’s just that simple. When we’re not on the court, we love to laugh, gossip, shop … just regular things that sisters do. She’s a great person and a great sister. I know I can always rely on her, and she’s always with me no matter how far away she is.
ALIVE: Both of you are known as much for your tennis careers as you are for your personal style, and your recent outfit at the French Open certainly turned some heads. What do you want your style to say about you?
VW: It’s fun, classic and very feminine, like me. I like to be able to do things that haven’t been done before, that are unique, but that you can also wear 10 years from now, no problem. It’s about exploring new boundaries on the court–like wearing jewelry, or having Dianne Von Furstenberg design my Wimbledon dress (before high fashion designers were really doing athletic wear). I did lace at the French Open this year because it had never been done in a tennis dress, and I’m happy I did.
ALIVE: Many would call you fearless in your fashion choices. What would you say to the naysayers out there?
VW: You’re right! I am fearless. I try whatever I dream up, and I go for it–that’s what makes it fun. There have been a lot of naysayers, but theoretically I’m not even supposed to be playing professional tennis. Where I’m from, nobody really does, so I’ve already beaten the odds.
ALIVE: How do you keep it all in perspective, even when you’re not having your best match?
VW: You can’t judge yourself by the downs. You can’t even judge yourself by your last shot. If there are bad plays, you can’t assume the next one is going to be bad, too. It’s easy to do that sometimes. You just really have to live in the moment and believe that you can do better. And know that you can’t believe in the person across the net more than yourself.
ALIVE: In your “spare time,” you’re the owner of two businesses—V Starr Interiors and EleVen designer clothing line [Venus earned her degree in fashion design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2007]. Where did you get your entrepreneurial mindset?
VW: Definitely from my dad. He always taught us to work for ourselves. Thankfully with tennis you do work for yourself, and now I’m my own boss in the business world as well. The best part is being able to have the creative direction and freedom, but it takes some serious time to really make it work.
ALIVE: What’s the story behind the name EleVen, and what do you currently have in the works for the label?
VW: Eleven is a good number—it was part of my address growing up in Compton, and it represents the best of the best, because people always say, one out of 10, but it’s an 11. So you can be more than your best in EleVen. The line is about trying to push the envelope on the court. I’m working to bring fun patterns and zippers and other things I like onto the court with the line. This whole year has been about the illusion of bare skin, and even though I said recently I wouldn’t do anymore, (giggles) I probably will.
ALIVE: Many of the lessons you’ve learned from tennis—learning to lose, putting in the work, pushing yourself to the limit—that you now apply to business are big reasons why you decided to write your first book, Come to Win.
VW: There are so many lessons in sports that can be applied to business. From the experiences I’ve had across the board, on the court and off the court, I’ve used the lessons I’ve learned in tennis to be successful. So I started thinking about other people in sports and how they incorporated sports lessons into the rest of their lives, and I felt it was an important lesson worth sharing with others.
ALIVE: You had the chance to interview a lot of really inspiring people for the book—Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Vera Wang and Phil Knight, among others. What was it like to have such candid conversations with such an influential group?
VW: I was so nervous to do all the interviews, especially Condoleezza Rice because she’s someone I’ve always looked up to. Everyone is so busy, and I felt so lucky to be able to work with so many smart, successful people on this. After I got over the initial jitters, it was really fun actually! It took a lot of time and effort, but it was a really interesting project that taught me a lot from people who are at the top of their fields.
ALIVE: You’ll be in St. Louis on July 10 to promote the book and play with the St. Louis Aces, where you’ll do tennis clinics with local kids after matches. It must be really rewarding to be able to give back to kids who love tennis.
VW: It is. I love seeing the kids hit and have a great time and giving them pointers and encouraging them. I try to keep it pretty simple, and always talk about the things that I didn’t do right, so hopefully they can learn. Basically, I make fun of myself, and they laugh. It works.
ALIVE: Gender equality is a cause that began with your tennis career but will likely follow you long after. Why this cause, and what have you done most recently to support it?
VW: Tennis is the largest sport in the world that features female competitors, so I’ve always felt a responsibility to help empower the females that follow us. I worked with the WTA to develop a partnership with UNESCO (a UN-affiliated organization) that targets global gender equality concerns and now serve as the founding ambassador, helping to recruit other tennis players to participate and identifying projects around the world. We’re in our third year of the partnership, and we now support programs in over 25 countries.
ALIVE: You seem like someone who has it all. What would you say to those who say you can’t have it all?
VW: You can always have more. I’ve been blessed with a supportive family and the opportunity to make a living playing a sport that I love. I want to win every Grand Slam, I want to be No. 1 and win another Olympic gold medal in singles and doubles, but these things don’t always happen. One of the best things about what I do is setting new goals and pursuing them with everything I’ve got.
Photo credit: Photos By Charles Bush