Commentary

The reinvention of Venus Williams

Tennis, off-court exploration and development are constants for No. 3 seed at U.S. Open

Updated: August 26, 2010, 11:51 AM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

At 6-foot-1 and with seven Grand Slam singles titles on her résumé, there isn't much that intimidates Venus Williams.

Unless, of course, she has the task of interviewing renown brain surgeon Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, former president Bill Clinton, award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien, iconic fashion designer Vera Wang, and more than 40 other visionaries who have changed the world in their own unique way.

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Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAn injured knee hasn't slowed Venus Williams this summer; she promoted her book.

Williams interviewed some of the world's most powerful people for her book, "Come To Win." And while it was sometimes overwhelming, her goal was to share their life lessons by asking these leaders a simple question: How did playing sports impact your life?

"I was nervous about the interviews," Williams said. "That was a little nerve-racking. I don't think I ever got used to it. It was tough, but it was so exciting. And I was hoping I was able to ask the right question and get the right story."

The book project, which took 15 months to complete, was fitting because anyone who has followed her career has seen Williams transform from "just a top tennis player," to one of the most iconic female athletes in history.

Some of the world's best athletes search fruitlessly to find interests outside of sports that provide the same satisfaction as their athletic careers.

Some former athletes, like Magic Johnson, Bill Bradley and Charles Barkley, have discovered high-profile roles after retiring from sports. Others, though, have struggled.

Venus -- and her sister Serena -- will never have that problem. Not only is Venus a best-selling author, but she's also a fashion designer with her own sportswear and accessories line, EleVen; CEO of her own interior design firm, V Starr Interiors; part-owner of the Miami Dolphins; and founding ambassador of the WTA-UNESCO Gender Equality Program, which helps women become leaders in different parts of the world.

At 30 years old, Venus has carved out a solid, entrepreneurial career beyond tennis -- all while still managing to collect every noteworthy prize in her sport. Does doing so much create an even greater challenge for her down the road? Namely, what else is there left for her to achieve?

Venus Williams
Lalo Yasky/WireImageAt the launch of the global gender equality ad campaign in 2007, the message on Venus Williams' shirt read "strong, smart, confident, equal."

When asked that, Venus took a prolonged pause before finally answering. Maybe the idea of running out of things to organize, achieve, build and transform is as unlikely to her as Albert Pujols suddenly forgetting how to hit a home run.

"The key for me is that I'm doing what I love," said Venus, a two-time U.S. Open winner who will be seeded third when the tournament begins Monday. "I love tennis. I love fashion design. I love interior design. And I love being busy. I'm one of those people that if I'm sitting still, I'm not sure what to do."

Exactly how much time Venus is devoting to tennis these days is constantly debated by the media, although she contends the sport remains her top priority. Still, there is a perception that tennis has become just a second job for the Williams sisters. Serena, ranked No. 1 in the world, will miss the U.S. Open with a foot injury, which is why many have characterized the Open as being, well, wide open.

Despite having won twice, albeit almost a decade ago, Venus has become something of an afterthought at the Open, too. She hasn't played since losing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals to Tzvetana Pironkova (who was ranked No. 82 at the time) because of a sprained knee. She spent most of the summer promoting the release of her book.

"I had a tough summer with some bad luck with my leg," she said. "But I'm ready for the Open, thank God."

Many of her elite contemporaries, such as Lindsay Davenport and Kim Clijsters, have either retired or needed extended breaks, but despite being pulled in different directions and having to battle injuries, the Williams sisters have resisted that path.

"I love winning matches," Venus said. "I love every time a new dress comes out, and people like it. There's so much to do when you do love it. You just find a new way to do the same thing."

According to Forbes, Venus was the third-highest-paid female athlete at a little more than $15 million in the last year. Only Maria Sharapova and Serena made more.

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Julian Finney/Getty ImagesOh yeah, tennis. Venus Williams was last on court for a tour match at Wimbledon.

Tennis was Venus' springboard, but it accounts for very little of her overall wealth. Although she has her own companies, Venus' star power remains her biggest commodity. She's a pitchwoman for Oreo, Tide, Powerade, Wrigley's gum and Avon, among others. She also carries the distinction of the richest female endorsement deal in Reebok history, reportedly worth $40 million. By comparison, she's won about $27 million in prize money in her tennis career.

"Our parents taught us to get an education and have our own businesses," Venus said. "So the reason I do what I do is because I'm influenced by my upbringing. It's been a dream of mine from the beginning."

Venus, like pop star Madonna, always seems to find a way to reinvent herself and stay relevant, a challenge for any athlete who has passed the physical prime of her career. Case in point: On Thursday she's hosting an interactive virtual tennis clinic, which is sponsored by Ralph Lauren. Her EleVen line and Ralph Lauren designed limited-edition clothing she'll wear for the clinic and at the U.S. Open.

And what Venus wears to a tournament creates as much buzz as her play. (Remember how much attention her black lace outfit at the French Open generated?)

Is she a business mogul pretending to be a tennis player or the other way around?

Considering how male superstars such as LeBron James are positioning themselves as individual enterprises, it's fair to say Venus is a little of both.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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