Venus Williams clings to the mantra “Keep it simple.” Seven Grand Slam titles and scores of accolades later, that hasn’t changed.
The resolution to keep things simple also might explain why she sometimes responds to long-winded, sometimes complex questions with simple answers.
“Do you feel pressure to perform at a high level, after making two Grand Slam finals and finishing 2017 ranked No. 5?” she was asked after a practice session at last week’s Tie Break Tens exhibition in New York.
“Simple answer,” she replied, “No.”
Serena Williams won the first match in her comeback at the BNP Paribas Open after a 14-month layoff for the birth of her first child, beating Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan 7-5, 6-3 in a first-round match Thursday night in Indian Wells.
As if we should have ever doubted her, Serena Williams returned to the tour ready for a fight — a fight she was never going to lose.
Serena Williams, asked about a backdated therapeutic use exemption she received for the 2015 French Open, which she won, reiterated she had never tested positive for a banned substance and that she was “incredibly sick” for the tournament.
Other players might say the same thing, then go on to elaborate. But Venus is not an elaborator. She doesn’t share kid sister Serena’s outgoing gene, or the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s relish for the public life. And for a long time, this very private person has been asked questions to which there might be no clear, simple answers.
How did the Williams sisters happen? How do you continue to do what you do at the age of 37? How does it feel to have to play your sister in a critical match? How does it feel to be the second-most successful player in your family? And so on.
Can you blame Venus for seeking refuge in simplicity? Try to delve into her aura by asking how she has come to handle losses so graciously even though the clock on her career keeps ticking away and she’ll tell you: “Everyone handles losing differently. It’s just me. No big explanation.”
Yet we hunger for big explanations. What is the secret to her longevity in a sport that begins to ask players some very tough questions when they turn 30? For Venus, advancing age seems particularly dangerous because she suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that leaves its victims more prone to fatigue and joint pain.
The simple explanation might be the best one. She continues to shine because she so enjoys what she is doing. It’s half the battle.
“The satisfying thing is putting in the work and getting the job done,” she told ESPN.com earlier in the week. “When you do that and see the improvement, that’s a great feeling.”
That process might come under the heading of “character building.” It’s an idea that Venus endorses. “Nothing builds character more than sport. It builds character every single day, every single shot.”
Venus has clearly accumulated a lot of capital in that department, despite facing unique challenges over two decades. In its own sphere, the game she plays provides a simple if partial explanation for her longevity at the elite level.
“My dad would always say, ‘You have to get inside the baseline to really hurt a guy,’ ” said Spencer Segura, son of coaching legend Pancho. “Venus is one of the few pros who will consistently do that. Her game plan is simple. She’ll crack that big serve and then step in to take control of the middle of the court and dictate with the forehand. It’s hard these days with the dead strings and heavy balls, but she does it.”
That one-two punch, the big serve backed by an atomic forehand hit from well inside the court, has been Venus’s bread and butter. She’ll be fixing up some more of it starting Saturday at Indian Wells in just her second tournament of the year. She has cut back her schedule significantly, a prudent concession to age as well as her engagement in other activities.
“It’s a lot of work to be on tour,” she said. “It’s a lot of work to play in tournaments. You have to be at your best every single moment. If you don’t want it that 1 percent more than the next person, you won’t get it. Finding the motivation to do that every single time out is the challenge.”
It’s a mission with which Venus hasn’t grown bored. She misses the tour when she’s back at her Florida home, attending to her significant business interests. “It’s always on my mind,” Venus said of her tennis career. “I’m not sure if it’s really that I’m missing it, but in the back of my mind it’s like, ‘I gotta get back to practice.’ “
So far, that little voice in the back of her head has always had its way, convincing Venus to go out there for one more hit, one more workout in the gym, one more tournament. It can’t go on forever. Venus knows that. Practically speaking, the less you play the more important it is to win. In her case, to win big. Because that’s the Williams way.
“I’ve been able to meet a lot of my dreams,” she said. “But those aren’t things I dwell on. I’m always looking forward to what’s next, because all that other stuff is the past, and I can’t do anything about that, whether I won or lost.”
So she plays on. Adding to the family legacy. Adding to her résumé. Adding to the joy of all those who have come to admire her in multiple dimensions: champion, ambassador, advocate for gender equality, model big sister, creative force in fashion and decor.
It’s a complex portfolio for someone who would just as soon keep it simple.