Venus Williams is still breaking new ground in tennis two decades after her first U.S. Open appearance.
Her semifinal match Thursday evening against Sloane Stephens (ahead of Madison Keys vs. Coco Vandeweghe) marked the first time since 1981 that American female athletes are dominating the 136-year-old hard court competition.
Williams, who competed in her 19th career U.S. Open, made more milestones last July. At BB&T Atlanta Open, Williams’ exhibition match against Genie Bouchard was the first time in the tournament’s 96-year history that women participated as competitors.
Playing in front of a sold out crowd in Atlantic Station, the four-time Olympic gold medalist triumphed over Bouchard, a 2014 Wimbledon finalist, with 6-4 in the first set and breaking a 6-6 tie with a 7-4 score. The evening game was all fun for Williams.
The 43-time Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour title holder wanted to use the exhibition game to entertain her adoring fans. “I can’t really say I’ve done anything like this before, so I imagine there will be a lot of excitement today,” the soft-spoken Lynwood, California native told NBC News in an afternoon press conference. “The fans will be excited, so I’ll do my best to definitely deliver a win.”
Williams, who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, brought along her exceptional two decades of vigorous and tenacious athleticism to the hard court. Her performance against the young Canadian tennis pro was full of endurance-heavy maneuvers and fierce serves.
Standing six-foot-one, the stylish best-selling author and certified interior designer’s glided, sprinted and hustled across the blue asphalt in a sheer aqua blue ensemble with purple floral design. Her costuming was actually an original from the Needlepoint collection of her clothing line, EleVen by Venus Williams.
Rocking rhythmically from side-to-side anytime she anticipated Bouchard’s serves, Williams’ swift and aggressive right-handed swings attacked the ball. Williams’ swing was accompanied by her signature grunt. Part of her game plan is paying close attention to the nuances of her competitors’ performance.“I haven’t played her [Bouchard] in a number of years,” shared Williams, seated with her legs crossed.
“She plays a game similar to mine: short strokes, moves around the court well, very competitive.” Bouchard called the elder sister of the talented Serena Williams “one of the best players ever.” She remembers her previous matches against Williams as being tough. “They were really long three setters,” recalled Bouchard. “It’s always very challenging to play against someone who is so great.”
An extroverted, top-ranking Quebec native, Bouchard added that competing against Williams allows her to improve her sportsmanship. “It’s an honor to share a court with a legend, especially considering how well she is still playing,” said Bouchard. “She has such a big and powerful game, so it’s important to be ready for that. Venus’ serve is a huge weapon. It’s a chance to challenge myself and see how far away I am from where I wanna be or what I need to improve to be at a close level of such a great player.”
Williams became a household name when she became a pro at age 14. Now 37, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion isn’t bothered by her age or any potential health issue prohibiting her ability to upkeep her competitive attitude.
She says she maintains a consistent workout regimen: actively practicing her swing as warmup drills. A finalist at this year’s Wimbledon games, Williams has been battling the autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome, since 2011 but refuses to let it affect her playing. She plays a lot of team tennis to keep her energy level and breathing under control.
The NAACP Image Award winner actively conditions and stretches when she has to adapt to various temperatures and geographic regions for matches. Williams also says she intentionally avoids sugar in her diet: favoring healthy proportions of green vegetables. The winner of 746 career matches, Williams mentions that self-care is necessary for remaining a relevant sports figure.
“You do get older,” advises the trailblazing part-owner of the Miami Dolphins, the first woman-of-color to do so. “Things haven’t changed much for me yet. I just do a lot of preventative things physically, and hopefully that takes out a lot of the issues that could happen in terms of injuries. Mentally, it’s about planning a schedule that’s achievable. It really makes a massive difference.”
Insisting that tennis champions should be good strategists for scoring points, a confident Williams continued: “I know this game. I know how to prepare. I know the ins-and-outs. I just continue down that road. It’s about still trying to improve everyday and add things to my game. That’s what my mindset is.”
Williams reiterates that her record-breaking appearance at this year’s BB&T Atlanta Open was an opportunity for her to raise her personal athletic standards, along with the standards of professional tennis.
The advocate for gender equality in the sports industry is proud she can continue to leverage competition with her personal mission to inspire generations of athletes, especially women, to always give their best.
For Williams, the most rewarding part of her tennis is still being able to play doubles with and against her younger sister, Serena. “Wow. You can’t play anything better than that,” said Venus. “Those were some awesome matches, and from the times we’ve played, we’ve had a lot of success.”