straight outta compton: venus williams vs. everyone else

July 1, 2013

By: Craig Carpenter, AFROPUNK Contributor 

Champion: 1. a person who has defeated all opponents in a competition or series of competitions, so as to hold first place: the heavyweight boxing champion.

4. a person who fights for or defends any person or cause: a champion of the oppressed.


In 1994, at fourteen years old, Venus Williams made her debut on the professional tennis circuit. Raised in Compton, California. She’d already dominated the USTA Junior Tour, having compiled a 63-0 record and number one ranking for Southern California players under 12. Her father, Richard Williams, had taken her out of Rick Macci’s highly regarded training academy, one of the top finishing schools for tennis prodigies, to helm her instruction on his own. And she excelled. She wasn’t an unknown amongst her contemporaries. To the contrary, she was well known. And it wasn’t always pretty.

Twenty-eight years earlier, one of Ms. Williams’ tennis heroes, Billie-Jean King, levied a fight against the USTLA (U.S. Lawn Tennis Association) for equal pay for female tennis players on the professional circuit. In 1967, Billy-Jean King won 37% of the amount awarded to her male counterparts. She stated in her numerous press conferences then that she would not play on the circuit the following year if women players were not given parity. Having to surmount arguments such as, “(women) are not total athletes in the way that men are”, Ms. King’s political prowess, and her mastery on the courts eventually wore down the governing body. In 1971, The U.S. Open awarded equal pay between its male and female competitors, becoming the only major tournament to do so.

It seems fitting that to Venus Williams, another young master on the courts, the torch would be passed in the continuing battle for gender equality in the professional arena. The cause would need a new champion. The new film, Venus Vs., directed by Ava DuVernay is the chronicling of this story. As part of ESPN’s “Nine For IX” series, the story presents a layer of complexity to the legend of Venus WIlliams that is largely unknown to most, including her fans. Having entered the circuit as an outsider, Venus WIlliams advanced the struggle, battling the numerous dragons that were her peers, but also, the most formidable, white-clad dragon, Wimbledon.

“The only way you’re gonna break this door down is to win”. Richard Williams had provided such coaching and paternal guidance throughout her career. While not being the first, but seemingly the only African Americans in a sport historically associated with a privileged class of White people. The early struggles that she and her sister, Serena, faced with ostracism and a culture that did not accept them was personified in the towering figure of Lindsay Davenport. A 6′ 3”, Californian, ground and pound slugger, Davenport made the perfect foil for Venus Williams. Also tall and lanky at 6’ 1”, and also from California (Compton, to be specific), Williams’ mix of power and athleticism against Davenport made for electrifying spectacle. Though Davenport had enjoyed the upper hand in the early part of their rivalry, Williams‘ loss in the 1999 Australian Open probably brought forth the most challenge and growth in the soon to be champion. The signature beads that each of the Williams sisters wore in their hair, commonplace among young African American girls, were beyond a rarity on tennis courts such as these. It was on this court, against this player, when some of these beads loosed from her hair and fell to the court. Calling it a distraction, the chair umpire penalized Williams a point. The ensuing argument, a turning point in the match (and one of most mesmerizing sequences of the film), perhaps her career, provides a great dramatic moment; one in which the audience can begin to see the wunderkind Venus Williams as, instead, an underdog. From this point forward, she truly earns her admirers.

Back to the dragons. In 2000, Venus felled her first mighty rival, Davenport, but this time was on Centre Court, on the hallowed green grass of Wimbledon. She captured the first of five eventual Championship trophies there. The establishment, itself,  would finally recognize, and even begin to embrace her. (This was, incidentally, the very beginning of the unprecedented, and overall dominance the Williams sisters would enjoy for most of the following decade.) Her accomplishment solidified her place in a very rare circle, and brought with it, a degree of clout in the form of advocacy for gender equality in tournament awards. The film presents a tight, fast moving narrative as to how she achieved this victory, again, Wimbledon being likely the greatest dragon of all. Amongst other ways, she penned an editorial in the British newspaper, The Times, taking the tournament to task for their stance and unequal treatment of its female competitors. Released just before the she would defend her title in the 2006 tournament, the grace and power she displayed on the court could also be found in the writing, closing the statement this way:

“I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.”

The shot fired across the bow was more than noticed. As nimbly as she bounds across the court, she capitalized on her popularity and, using great savvy, forced the court of public opinion, and the tournament, and even The Parliament, to bend to her arguments. In February of 2007, her victory was complete, with Wimbledon awarding equal pay, to all competitors, in all rounds. 

Once again, Ms. DuVernay, a champion, herself, presents the story of a Black woman in a way largely unfamiliar to mainstream filmmaking. Venus Vs. is a film not only triumphant in its subject matter, but in offering a narrative that is at once as empowering to female athletes, young girls looking for heroes and feminist activists, but also to all sports fans. To everyone, for that matter. 

Venus Vs., directed by Ava DuVernay premieres July 2nd on ESPN