But on Friday, greatness had to practice.
In the calm of the morning, the stadium comes back to life. A young staff member rushes to place signs around the lower bowl, while two men bring down flower arrangements and place one behind each player’s bench. A forklift transports boxes and boxes of Jose Cuervo. Workmen apply a fresh coat of blue and red paint to the stairs leading to the courts.
And there’s Venus, tall and skinny and dressed in an emerald outfit, kicking balls shortly after 10 a.m.
This is a private session, two hours spread across the main court for her alone and a small entourage of her trainer, massage therapist and a big man apparently there for safety. She is the most intimate Venus on the court, the icon of quiet hours paying homage to her greatness. It still needs to be cared for, tweaked, and treated with respect. Those with great talent don’t take it lightly, so here she is — at 42 and with nothing to prove — still hard at work. And it attracts an audience.
Three photographers are deployed in different areas of the stand. A scattering of staff lingers, brandishing their cellphones because even during the clock, they want proof of what’s happening in front of them. A man with a red bandana sits near a woman who is holding a sleeping baby. Above them sits a girl with mocha skin, long legs and braided hair. She is also there to testify to greatness.
Venus returns the balls from her coach and her hitting partner for the day, a local player named Leon Settles. It must have felt like waking up and getting the call that Ginger Rogers needed a tap partner. Settles has admired Venus for a long time, so he’s pissed at first in the field even though he hides it well. He greets Venus before they start knocking, but when Settles realizes she’s just there to work, he cautions himself not to smile unless she smiles first.
During a short break, however, even Settles can’t help it. He keeps one of the tennis balls that touched Venus’ racket and gives it to the little braided girl. He knows that greatness must be shared.
“It was a little annoying because [Venus] changed my life. Lots of black kids and I’m sure lots of Americans, period. Many of us looked up to Venus and her sister Serena,” Settles would later say. “So it was actually a dream, to be on my turf and hitting herself with a legend. I can’t even explain it.
At 35, Andy Murray fights back, driven by a love of tennis and hard work
Pauses in search of the right words. But I understand. Being close to greatness can cause you to lose your temper.
When her coach throws a ball into the stands, Venus turns around. Squinting, she searches for the stray ball but all she finds is the closest person available – me. And I freeze.
Venus’ training fate ahead of her first singles match in nearly a year hinges on the decisive actions of the slow-paced columnist who doesn’t let go: “Do I understand this? Should I take this ball? But eventually, I spring into action, and for reasons I still can’t explain, I overreacted the missing prize over my head like a Wimbledon ballerina. Feeling like passing a fallen paintbrush to Monet, I throw the ball back to Venus. She corrals him, then replies, “Where’s the second one?”
Her intensity increases, and now she kicks the ball. Her coach serves and she comes back fiercely. Return serve after serve with a basic groundstroke. A tedious rehearsal she did for more than two decades, beginning on the public courts of Compton, Calif., with her father and younger sister.
Even after rising to world No. 1 20 years ago and winning 49 singles titles in total, she is still practicing her fundamentals. Sweat begins to darken his green outfit because 79 degrees in Washington is not a normal 79 degrees. Instead, 79 degrees in Washington is hot and sticky and feels like standing at the top of a long spiral staircase to hell. So she needs a break.
Nearly 30 minutes later, she sits down, wipes off and dips into her red Wilson bag for her phone. But she doesn’t look at him for long and goes to take a handful of grapes, then a peach. Her trainer is sitting next to her but Venus continues to stare straight ahead, holding her snack in her right hand and chewing. His stance doesn’t change even when his trainer appears and starts punching with Settles. She does not follow baaanggg and baaahhhp service and return. It must sound like white noise at this point to her. She is locked up and continues to look ahead.
She’s back on the court and Michael Hansley, a barback hired for the day, finds his way into the stadium. He heard she was training and brought her cell phone. Hansley, 35, says he grew up admiring the Williams sisters and after watching the biopic based on their father, ‘King Richard’ – four times and counting – he is even more inspired. That explains why he’s the only one bold enough to shout, “Venus, I love you!”
She smiles weakly and waves at him.
“It was beautiful. It’s inexplicable,” Hansley says of watching her practice for even a few minutes. “It’s very beautiful. Just to see her play, warm up or whatever. I wanted to shoot him. I didn’t want to get in trouble though.
Mark Ein, the founder and owner of the Washington Kastles tennis club, would have no fear of getting in trouble for the bees – queuing on the playing surface with his young son Charlie.
Venus Williams will play for the first time at the Citi Open
“I brought my Mini-me,” Ein says, saluting Venus, who previously played for the Kastles.
She offers an airy hug, because of all the sweat, and asks Charlie if he likes tennis. She then points to the blue awning where all the names of the Citi Open winners are displayed. She shows Charlie where her name would go.
When the visit with the Eins ends, Venus gets back to business. Now it’s his service. His process: shift the weight to his back foot, straighten his front leg, and lengthen his body to throw it. Grace and elegance in motion. She surpasses her trainer and smiles at Settles, now he can smile back.
At 11:36, it’s now time to put everything in place and play against Settles. That fine serve now becomes a mighty weapon, and Hansley returned, walking down the hall with a colleague.
“Greatest to ever do this. The best!” Hansley told him, never taking his eyes off Venus.
At noon, she finished. She survived most prying noses. The silence about her work ethic and the intimacy of her dedication, evidenced by the contract worker and the millionaire’s son. By the unranked hitting partner and the girl in the stands who dreams of being on that pitch one day.
Before leaving, Settles heads to the bleachers to grab the baby, his son Legend. He asks for a picture with Venus and she’s all smiles.
“A legend with a legend,” he says.
When the little Legend will be old enough, her father will show her this photo. And he will know what greatness looks like.