Venus Williams, 27, is at an age when most tennis greats prepare for retirement. But she's showing no signs of slowing up. This month Williams will go after her third U.S. Open title in Flushing, N.Y. It's been nearly 13 years since Venus and her sister Serena began to put a stranglehold on the tennis world with their beaded braids; for some fans, the mention of their names still sparks heated criticism of their flashy wardrobes and sporadic appearances on the pro circuit. Still, no one can question their influence on the sport. Together, they've earned some $75 million and 14 Grand Slam singles titles. As Venus's career enjoys another upswing, she's reveling in her new role: elder stateswoman.
Williams secured her fourth Wimbledon women's singles title this summer—a feat previously accomplished only by Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Billie Jean King. "The first time I played at Wimbledon, I was so young and so sure I was going to win that I bought a ball dress to wear to the championship parties," she says with a giggle over a dinner of buttermilk biscuits and Gatorade. "This time, after all my injuries, I couldn't think that far ahead." She has other things on her mind, too. For the first time in the history of women's singles at Wimbledon, Williams's prize, $1.4 million, was the same as that of her male counterpart. Equal pay has been a longtime crusade for Williams, who wrote an op-ed in The Times of London and delivered an impassioned speech on the subject at the All England Club. "I asked them to imagine their daughter out there," she says, "playing equally hard as men and not getting the same reward."
Venus's Wimbledon victory fell on the 50th anniversary of the first African-American Wimbledon win by Althea Gibson. But Venus's father, Richard, made news when he told reporters not much had changed for African- Americans in 50 years. His daughter respectfully disagrees. "Both of my parents are from the South, and that shapes the way they think about and see things,'' Williams says. "I know what they and my ancestors experienced, so I get it. But it has been slightly different for my sister and I. We've had opportunities and breaks our parents never had."
In the past, Venus has been linked to a number of men, including a former bodyguard, but she's tried to stay casual about dating. "I don't worry about it too much," she says. "As Beyoncé says, 'I could have another you in a minute'." This year, though, Venus had a boyfriend sitting in her guest box for the first time: Hank Kuehne, a pro golfer from Texas. He happens not to be African-American, a fact various African-American blogs have taken issue with. Venus says she doesn't read blogs—and "I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about marriage and kids. I'm not a normal girl like that."
Though Williams can seem invincible on the court, her life hasn't been easy. Her parents divorced in 2002; the next year, her older sister Yetunde—one of six girls in the family—was shot down in a drive-by attack near the family's old neighborhood in L.A. "That took a lot out of all of us," Williams says. "I think the worst part was getting back to feeling safe after she died. For a long time after that I would call all my sisters daily to make sure they were OK."