This time last year, Venus Williams was in the midst of her most successful season in nearly a decade. She played in the final at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and capped her Grand Slam season with a semifinals run at the US Open. She then reached the championship match at the WTA Finals. With little sister Serena out for the majority of the year on maternity leave, Venus was the Williams sister at the forefront of American tennis.
This season, little has gone to script for the elder Williams. She hasn’t seen the second week at a Slam, suffered the first back-to-back first-round defeats at majors in her career and dropped out of the top 10 in the world rankings. In early August, just three weeks before the start of the US Open, Williams withdrew from the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati with a right knee injury that forced her to scale back her preparation for New York, a tournament she hasn’t won since 2001. With Serena back — and already making Grand Slam finals — Williams is once again playing in the shadow of little sis.
All that begs the question: In the midst of such a trying season, what fuels Williams, 38, a seven-time Grand Slam champion and the CEO of two companies, to continue crisscrossing the globe to play professional tennis?
She says the answer is as simple as it is cliché. She still has love for the game.
“My love, my motivation, it comes from the same place it came from yesterday,” Williams said by phone from her home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where she’s training for the US Open, doing physical therapy and fulfilling sponsor obligations for American Express. “It’s all about caring. As long as you care, you are going to be able to keep that love even when you don’t get the perfect result. It’s the day you don’t care that you know you have to move on.”
Williams is a forward-thinker, a businesswoman and designer who, as CEO of EleVen athletic apparel and V Star Interiors, is constantly attempting to forecast the next hot trend, and a player who rarely looks in the rear-view. “My primary focus is what’s ahead of me,” Williams said. That ability will serve her well in shaking off the past seven months as she prepares for New York.
“I’ve played amazing in a lot of tournaments where I didn’t think I was going to play well at all,” Williams said. “You can’t get too into thinking, ‘This is the perfect preparation for me.’ I know how to play tennis. I can play tennis at any given point in time and I can play well. Even though I had to withdraw [from Cincinnati], I am doing everything I can to get back on the court. I have the confidence to walk into the next event and know I can make it happen.”
In 22 seasons, Williams has followed Grand Slam wins with disappointing losses, and she’s won tournaments when she couldn’t explain her success. Knowing that greatness often comes when you least expect it — just ask 2017 US Open champ Sloane Stephens — has Williams feeling calmer than one might expect heading into New York, where she says her goal is still to improve upon her stellar 2017 performance. “I don’t necessarily look at the last year and say, ‘I want to see the same result,'” Williams says. “I think, ‘I want this year to be even better.'”
Last year, Williams powered her way through the US Open draw, enamoring the tennis world with her post-match interviews (and trademark twirls) while reminding her peers that age is but a number. At several points in the tournament — and especially after taking the second set of her semifinal match against Stephens 6-0, a match she eventually lost 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 — Williams seemed destined to return to the final in Flushing Meadows for the first time in 15 years. And although she doesn’t allow herself to rest her mind on that moment for long, that loss still stings. Better yet: It’s motivation for a better performance this year.
“I did the best I could last year,” Williams said. “There were a lot of wins, and it was a great time and sometimes you play better on one or two points and win, and sometimes … I played a match I believe I deserved to win, but that doesn’t always happen. Those are the hardest losses, but you are proud of the effort you made. That is how I feel about last year in New York. I’m proud of the effort and proud of a great result.”
And this year? What will Williams deem success in her 22nd US Open campaign?
“Success is really about being able to look back and say I gave it my all and I enjoyed it,” Williams says. “A lot of people play sports and go through life not enjoying their experiences and I am so thankful that I have done that.” She pauses. “And obviously wining helps you enjoy it more. So I would like to be able to win. That will make it even more fun and special.”