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L.A. Times: There Is More To Venus Williams Than Meets The Eye

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

written by Helene Elliott for The L.A. Times Sports

Venus Williams is among the most famous athletes in the world. A five-time Wimbledon singles champion. Seven-time Grand Slam tournament singles winner and, with younger sister Serena, a nine-time Grand Slam tournament doubles champion.

Just past her 29th birthday, the Lynwood native is as compelling on the court as she is in the board rooms where the business of tennis is conducted and its policies are shaped.

But ask her to name the other professional athletes she admires and she'll double-fault.

"I'm the worst with sports. I don't know anything outside of tennis," she said, laughing.

"Like when I go to the ESPYs people will say, 'Congratulations,' and I won't know who they are so I won't even know if I should say, 'Congratulations.' I don't know what they did. I feel like, stuck. And I don't want them to think I'm a loser or stuck up.

"I can tell by their physique they're an athlete but other than that I'm lost. So I'm sorry, I can't help you."

No apologies necessary.

She might not know a race car driver from a bowler at tonight's ESPY awards at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live, but everyone will know who she is: One of the most powerful servers and baseliners the game has seen, driven to be the best since she and Serena learned the game from their father, Richard, on Compton's municipal courts.

She took little consolation that the Wimbledon title stayed in the family July 4 when Serena beat her, 7-6 (3), 6-2. "I still want to win. Especially that title," she said Tuesday during a visit to The Times' offices.

"I like winning that one. I'm used to winning that one."

That's not all she has won. What most fans don't know is that behind the scenes, the world's third-ranked player is just as powerful as she is on the court.

Williams has successfully pushed for equal prize money for women, helped formulate a better-calibrated tour schedule and was a key figure in a joint program between the WTA and UNESCO -- the cultural arm of the United Nations -- that promotes gender equality and leadership opportunities for women.

The idea for the UNESCO program emerged from her experience at an ESPY awards ceremony in which two Afghan women were honored for starting a soccer program in their war-torn homeland. The UNESCO-WTA program uses tennis as a vehicle to educate women around the world, making the sport a stepping stone to a better and fuller life.

Williams understands how that can happen. Tennis has made her a very rich woman and has been the main focus of her life but hasn't been her entire life. Nor will it ever be, even though she has been criticized by fellow players for having pursuits that could have cut into her court time.

Even when she started playing professional events at age 14 she knew she wanted a life outside tennis and collected images of fashions and artwork, snipping pictures out of newspapers and magazines and pasting them into scrapbooks.

In the digital age she can scan drawings into her desktop computer instead of lugging scrapbooks around the world, but she's still gathering ideas for her V Starr interior design business and her EleVen clothing line.

"I think that having other interests helps you realize that no matter what you do, you start on the bottom. You work your way up," said Williams, who lives in Florida and considers the winters here "cold" compared to her new home.

"You get to the top and think, 'Let's just stay here as long as I can.' It helps you realize and appreciate what you do have, besides being a well-rounded person when tennis is over and not being afraid of what might be, what your life might be."

Not that she has an idea of when tennis will be over for her.

"I plan on stopping when I'm just terrible," she said, and that could be never.

"As long as I'm doing great I have no plans on stopping. The one thing that could stop me would be injuries, so I try to prevent those."

Toward that end, she does more work in the gym than she used to and is more conscious of protecting her joints. She sets her schedule more deliberately too.

After Wimbledon she played a few days of World Team Tennis for the Philadelphia Freedoms for fun before heading to Vancouver for the launch of a Wii tennis-themed video game.

"Which I'm actually really bad at because I actually try to play tennis," she said. "You have the thing and you're moving and being a good tennis player, you have to scale your game down."

She squeezed in a visit to L.A. to see her mother, Oracene, and sister Lyndrea and support Serena's nomination for "Best Female Athlete" at the ESPYs before she will begin preparing for tournaments at Stanford beginning July 27, Cincinnati starting on Aug. 10 and Toronto on Aug. 17. After that, she heads for the U.S. Open, which she has won twice.

Her pace rarely slows, but she likes it that way.

"I enjoy being busy for the most part," she said. "I'm the kind of person that needs to do lots of things at one time."

And why not, even if she can more readily recognize a fashion designer than a fellow athlete.

Posted by Shelia

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