RBC started Black History Month with a global event featuring a conversation with legendary tennis champion Venus Williams. The star opened up about competing in a predominantly white sport, the pressure of being #1 and how she silenced critics with her talent and her inner strength.
Tennis star Venus Williams joined thousands of RBC employees from across the globe for an inspiring and unforgettable Black History Month event. In conversation with RBC Capital Markets Managing Director and Global Head of Commodity Strategy Helima Croft, Williams shared stories of her career path, her family, her failures and her proudest moments on and off the court.
The challenges of being first
Venus Williams is a trailblazer in many ways. While Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Zina Garrison paved the way for Black athletes in the sport of tennis, when Venus came on the stage in the 1990s, she was the most prominent, high-profile African American female tennis player of her time. Growing up in a space that often didn’t have much visible minority representation, she was in many ways “the first.”
There are significant challenges and burdens that come with this role, and Williams shares that accepting them began with knowing her history. “That’s why it’s so important that we have Black History Month,” she says. “Because when you don’t understand who you are, you don’t know where you’re going.”
She further explains that after understanding comes acceptance and pride. “The moment of accepting yourself, feeling proud of who you are, knowing your history and coming with your absolute best, helps to conquer the challenges we face. It’s all about self-love.”
“My experience in tennis was about being the best, no matter who I was or what colour I was. No matter what critics said or did, they couldn’t take that way from me or Serena. And we were good enough. We always had our racquets do the talking – and there was no more talking once those winners were in.”
Venus and her sister were certainly good enough, as the eldest Williams sister made history by becoming the first Black tennis player to be ranked Number One in the world during the open era. While being at the top is a lot to shoulder, Williams took it in stride. “The best part about it is that it opened so many doors – obviously for Serena and Naomi Osaka and I would love to think that Coco Gauff is on her way to being number one as well. But also being number one is fine – I’m not going to minimize it. It was one of my life goals and when you meet your goals in life, no matter how grand or how small, it’s a good feeling.”
Pressure as a privilege
Being at the top comes with its share of pressure, but Venus’ parents helped put that pressure into perspective. “They said have fun when you play, because it should be fun. You should be able to love what you do. That takes some of the pressure off.” She goes on to share that one of the hardest things to do in tennis is to serve for a match, explaining that the server should theoretically always win the game, but when you’re serving to win the match, the pressure is intense. “You have to start training your mind differently,” she says. “Instead of dreading that moment, say to yourself ‘I can’t wait for this opportunity.’ Over time, your mind starts to think that way. So it’s about perception and seeing that pressure as an opportunity.”
She further explains that the way you think is the most powerful tool available. “Sometimes, your mind is all you have, especially in those moments when you’re sick or injured and your morale is low,” she says, crediting her parents for her mental toughness. “It was really my mom and especially my dad who changed tennis. My dad always told us we would be number one and number two in the world – that’s how we were taught and that’s how we learned to think.”
Learning from failure
Venus admits she wasn’t always at the top of her game, sharing an early-career failure during the 1999 U.S. Open. She was 19 and her sister was 17 and they were both in the semi-finals. “There was an opportunity for an all-Williams final,” she says. “Obviously there was a lot of hype around that.” She recalls her match, revealing she didn’t have enough courage to step up to the moment. “I was so nervous. I held myself back and played it safe. And Serena went on to win her match and won the U.S. Open, the first sister to win a Grand Slam.” Venus explains she learned a great deal from that instance – about herself and what she didn’t want to do going forward. “The last thing I wanted was to hold myself back. Even if I lost, I wanted to be able to look back without regret – and in that instance, I couldn’t. So I told myself, no matter what it was, I would do what it took to win – and if I lost doing that, at least I could sleep at night.”
That moment of failure was a big change for Venus and the catalyst for winning big tournaments. “Sometimes those moments of failure are the moments you need to wake up and learn. Any mistake is fine, as long as it’s not the same one twice.”
Breaking down barriers
As Venus was breaking records and achieving firsts on the court, she was also breaking down barriers that extended beyond her sport. She shares her experiences pitching her business in corporate settings, fearing she would look too ethnic or feminine if she dressed as herself. “I felt I needed to wear suits to show I was serious. After a while, I thought, I’m just going to be me. I’m in the design industry and I don’t want to wear this black suit anymore – I decided to show up as a designer and show up fully as myself.”
In owning her femininity and individuality, Venus feels she – and anyone who does the same – has the power to bring others along and pave the way for the next person. The impact of her actions were evident even in the initial media reactions to the beads she would wear in her hair and the fashion choices she would make on the court. Eventually the media accepted her for who she was and consequently fashion in tennis has changed significantly. “There’s got to be that one person who starts so people can realize, she wants to wear her hair that way, I can too. And those dominoes start to fall,” she says.
As celebrated as Venus is for her play on the court, she is recognized for how she championed equal pay for women tennis players. In fact, in 2007, for the first time since Wimbledon began awarding prize money in 1968, the women earned the same amount as the men, thanks to the fight Venus wasn’t willing to give up on. “There was too much inequity for far too long,” Venus says, who is happy that players today don’t have to go through the fight for pay equity and thrilled to see progress in other sports.
Life is sport, and sport is life
When asked how others can gather the courage to thrive in uncomfortable situations, Venus explains her philosophy that life is sport, and sport is life. “It’s all preparation, it’s all commitment. It’s all ups and downs and learning how to work with a team, how to win and how to lose. It’s the same in life as it is in sport.” She adds that learning to deal with pressure, learning how to manage emotions and react under pressure need to be learned in the boardroom as well as the tennis court. Being truthful, grateful and gracious are just as important and are values she has lived by. “I wanted to be known as a great sportswoman – someone with a good attitude. I don’t think there’s anything worse than being remembered as a jerk. A lot of my career was spent making sure that every move I made was something I could be proud of later.”
Venus Williams is a champion in so many ways and has shown tennis players and fans around the world that anything is possible when you have the courage to show up as yourself, take a stand for what’s right and believe in your right to be number one.
Diane Amato is a Toronto-based freelance writer who loves to talk about finances, travel and technology.
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