Coached from a young age by her father, Venus Williams went on to embody the competitive spirit whenever she stepped foot on a tennis court. As one of the most recognized and highest paid tennis players in the world, Williams at her peak continually set and broke records, making her mark in a sport historically dominated by male athletes. Along with her equally powerful sister Serena Williams - whom she often battled on the court - she won several Grand Slam tournaments and won gold at the Olympic Summer Games. Success followed Williams outside of the tennis arena; she launched a clothing line, wrote a book with her sister, and took co-ownership of the professional football team the Miami Dolphins. Yet, it was her contributions to the sport itself - tirelessly advocating for equal pay for female tennis players - that also established Williams as a trailblazer and role model for millions all over the world.
Venus Ebony Starr Williams was born on June 17, 1980 in Lynwood, CA to Richard Williams and Oracene Price. She had three half-sisters and a young sister, Serena, who shared her love for tennis. Williams began playing the game competitively after the family moved south to Los Angeles' South Central, Compton. Both she and Serena were home-schooled and coached by their parents at public courts. When she was 10 years old, the family moved to West Palm Beach, FL, where she and her sister trained with coach Rick Macci at his tennis academy. The following year, their father pulled Williams and her sister out of Macci's school so he could coach them himself. In 1994, the 14-year-old Williams made her professional tennis debut at the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland, CA, where she faced (and eventually lost to) then-No. 2 seeded player Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
Three years after entering the professional realm, Williams competed in her first Grand Slam tournament at the 1997 French Open and reached the second round. That same year, she also made her debut at Wimbledon, considered the most prestigious tournament in tennis, where she lost in the first round. Williams fared much better at that year's U.S. Open, reaching the finals against Martina Hingis. That match made Williams the first unseeded female player since 1958 to reach the U.S. Open finals, as well as the first woman since Pam Shriver in 1978 to play in the finals on her first attempt. By year's end, Williams was ranked No. 22 in the world. In 2000, Williams won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments: Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. Her agility and controlled game play were William's strong suits, while her powerful serve - clocking between 115 and 130 mph - regularly landed the athlete in the record books. She played strongest on grass courts, which helped Williams nab more Wimbledon titles in 2001, 2005 and 2007. She was also a three-time Olympic gold medalist, taking first place at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia as a singles and doubles player (with Serena), as well as nabbing another gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the doubles competition.
Williams' tennis career included competitive rivalries with some of the strongest women in her sport, from Swiss player Hingis to fellow California native Lindsay Davenport. Her main opponent at the height of her career, however, was none other than her own sibling. The Williams sisters' rivalry continued throughout the 2000s, with several face-offs in Grand Slam finals and alternating as the No. 1 and 2 seeded players in the world. They were also the only two women during the "open era" (when Grand Slam tournaments began allowing professional players to compete with amateurs) of tennis to play each in four consecutive Grand Slam finals. While the Williams sisters were fierce opponents, they were an even bigger force to be reckoned with as a doubles team. The sisters claimed their first doubles title in 2000 at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and won several more tournaments in subsequent years. They also co-authored the book How to Play Tennis: Learn How to Play Tennis with the Williams Sisters in 2004. Other than appearing in tournaments, the less flashy sister rarely appeared on television, although she did provide a guest voice along with Serena and other tennis pros in a 2001 episode of "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ), and was an unsuspecting celebrity target on MTV's "Punk'd" (2003-07).
Even more so than her sibling, Williams often used her success as a platform for gender equality, most notably for female athletes' prize money. In a 2006 essay published in U.K.'s The Times, Williams criticized Wimbledon for awarding more money to male athletes than their female counterparts. After receiving the support of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Women's Tennis Association, and UNESCO, Williams became the first woman to receive the same amount of prize money at the 2007 Wimbledon finals as male singles winner Roger Federer. Off the court, Williams undertook successful ventures in media, fashion, and interior design. She was the CEO of the Florida-based design firm "V Starr Interiors," which helped her earn a spot in 2001 as one of Ladies Home Journal's "30 Most Powerful Women in America." In 2007, she launched her own clothing and footwear line called EleVen for national retailer Steve & Barry's. Two years later, she became part owner of professional football team the Miami Dolphins alongside her sister Serena and fellow big names, including Jimmy Buffett, Gloria Estefan, Mark Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. In 2010, Williams shocked the tennis world when she dropped out of the U.S. Open after being diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an incurable immune system disease. Despite her ongoing health issues, however, she continued to play in exhibition tournaments both as a singles player and her sister's doubles partner.
By Candy Cuenco