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Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Updated: June 17, 9:41 AM ET
"Come to Win" a timeless message


"Come to Win'' is an athlete-driven project based on a refreshing concept -- curiosity about what makes other people tick. Venus Williams, along with her sister Serena, has one of the all-time long-odds success stories. But rather than focusing on her own narrative, Williams chose to ask leaders in a variety of fields how sports had shaped their personal style and mindset.

The result is a collection that will be published June 29, when Williams presumably will be fully engaged in her day job, striving to win a sixth Wimbledon title.

"It's about the difference that sports makes in lives, not only for a professional athlete like me, but for people who play sports,'' she told reporters on a conference call this week. "The attitudes that it creates, the positivity and success, how you take those lessons that you learn on the court or on the field and how you apply them to your life.''

Veteran sports and entertainment journalist Kelly E. Carter was Williams' co-author. Both women came up with lists of people they wanted to interview, and Carter did background research and prepared questions. Williams also helped "wrangle" their subjects, according to Carter, including making a personal request of former President Bill Clinton at a tennis exhibition at Madison Square Garden. Williams and Carter conducted a number of the interviews together by phone and Carter did others alone. After Carter whittled the individual stories down to a manageable length, Williams read all the completed contributions.

"I was amazed at how well she listened,'' Carter said of Williams, whom she has known since the player was a teenager. "The first interview she did was [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, and I let her talk. I didn't want to interrupt her. She didn't just stick to our list of questions -- she asked follow-up questions. She said later that she was nervous, but I didn't know that.''

Most readers may be immediately drawn to the athletic recollections of famous contributors like Clinton, actor Denzel Washington, Nike founder Philip Knight or former General Electric CEO Jack Welch. (There are also several interviews with ex-professional athletes who have gone on to success in the business world, such as the NBA's Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the NFL's Roger Staubach and tennis icon Billie Jean King, one of Williams' mentors.) But some of the best nuggets in the book come from people who are not household names, many of them women.

Former Weyerhaeuser executive Susan Mersereau eloquently summarized how growing up competing with her brothers -- and being coached by her mother in tennis, golf and skiing -- primed her for the demands of male-dominated commerce. Too many women are "ambivalent about winning,'' as she put it.

"In a business negotiation or deal, I never walked into it saying 'Well, I'm just here to negotiate the best I can. If it doesn't work out, that's fine, '" Mersereau told the authors.

Fashion designer Vera Wang connected her experiences as a competitive pairs figure skater with her ability to survive and prosper in her cutthroat field. She will never forget the sickening sound of an entire arena groaning when she fell during a routine at the national championships. "It is a lot of pressure when thirty or forty thousand people are going 'Oooh' and you're on the ice on your ass,'' she told Williams and Carter. "It's the same in fashion.''

When The New York Times panned one of Wang's shows, she reminded herself that, "Anytime you put yourself out there for critique -- criticism or praise -- it takes great courage but it also takes great passion.''

Williams, an entrepreneur in her own right who owns an interior design firm and has created a line of tennis apparel, turns 30 this week. She said one of her favorite stories in the book came from award-winning chef and cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson of Sweden, who admitted that, "No matter my record as a chef, I'll always view myself as a failed soccer player. It's good. It keeps you humble.''

This book hammers home the point that successful people don't always win, but they nearly always learn something useful when they lose. It's a timeless message.