Tennis star Venus Williams

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Tennis superstar talks about her new book on harnessing your competitive spirit, Come to Win.


Tavis: Always pleased to have Venus Williams on this program. The multiple Grand Slam tennis champion is out with a new book about the intersection between sports and success even for everyday people like you and me.
The book is called Come to Win and features essays from the likes of Bill Clinton, Denzel Washington, Billie Jean King and so many more, and Venus knows that she’s always welcome on this set because she designed this set.
If you look really, really closely every night at the end of our show at the credits, you’ll see a company called V Starr that gets the credit for designing both sides of our set, where we’re sitting now and over here when I’m sitting on the other stage talking to satellite interviews. But Venus Williams and her company, V Starr, designed the whole thing and seven years later it’s holding up (laughter).
Venus Williams: It’s holding up. Thank you for not changing it (laughter).
Tavis: I can’t afford to change it. That’s why I called you –
Williams: – it was your vision, it was your vision.
Tavis: No, no. You were kind to do it for us. You still enjoying the design stuff?
Williams: I love design. This is obviously one of my favorite projects. If you look on the website, whatever we do, it’s always right there, the Tavis Smiley Show. This is near and dear to me, but we’re doing residential design and also commercial design, hotels, all kinds of things. It’s great.
Tavis: Speaking of design, when your sister Serena was here not too long ago, I asked her – the two of you live together, as everybody knows.
Williams: Yes.
Tavis: I asked Serena what’s it like living with Venus, your sister, and this is what she had to say.
Serena Williams: Well, I love it because I live with Venus and every time I come home like she changes the house now. We have whole new furniture, we have new – she loves designing like we talked about in the beginning. So now we have a whole new like big room that she kind of knocked down a wall. I love it. I don’t have to pay for anything (laughter). I get to live in a brand new house every month.
Tavis: I want to live with you. I want to move in with you (laughter).
Williams: Oh, gosh.
Tavis: Is that true? You’re changing things? Whenever she comes home, she doesn’t know where she’s going because you’ve redesigned things?
Williams: Well, we needed a couple of things redone. We live together, we haven’t moved, so when you don’t move, you know how it is. You just remodel.
Tavis: Yeah.
Williams: So we have a big family too, so there’s always more people coming, so we got to keep making room. So I have to rationalize what I’m doing basically (laughter).
Tavis: How is it living with your sister? You’re both obviously international stars and you hang out together. As much time as you all spend together as it is, you don’t get tired of living with each other?
Williams: No. She cooks.
Tavis: (Laughter) Oh, now I see how this works.
Williams: She cooks.
Tavis: You do design, she does the food. I got it.
Williams: Yes. See, I take care of everything around the house. It’s horrible because she has this thing now she calls me the husband. It just makes me feel all itchy. Husband? It doesn’t even sound right. She’ll make some food and say, “Hold on. I have to give my husband a plate first” and then she’ll make me a plate. It was so upsetting that I had to call my mom and say, “You have to tell her to stop doing that.”
So when she’s home, she always makes food. It’s great. I live it up and I guess I make sure she lives in nice conditions, that the house is taken care of. It’s a real partnership.
Tavis: That’s a good thing. This book – I was saying to you before we came on the air here that I’ve been involved in a few of these myself over the course of my career where you get people to give you these essays.
What tends to happen is, you get some really strong essays and you try to put the weak ones in amongst the strong ones to make the book a really good book.
But I was going through this a couple days ago and you really, really got some strong essays from a lot of important people, but their essays were really, really very powerful. I assume you were pleased with them.
Williams: Very pleased, very pleased. The content is so moving. Some of it’s moving and makes you a little teary-eyed. The other accounts will be very motivational where you want to get up and do something. Other things will just hit you right where you needed that motivation or that extra pickup. So every story is different, but they all bring something.
Tavis: One of the through-lines, for me at least in reading the book, and I want to ask you about is this notion that a lot of people in here, a lot of successful people, make the case in the text that they have learned more from losing than they ever learned from winning. Is that the case with you?
Williams: I think it’s interesting. Everyone picks up on that because it is interesting. As an athlete, you learn from losing. You don’t really get those big wins until you lose a big match or big matches. And you come to that breaking point where you’re like, “I’m gonna learn from this, I’m gonna get better” and it really lifts you to that next level.
So the losing is important. The winning is important too, but that losing is the catalyst.
Tavis: How do you – I’m gonna switch and come back to this. How do you – since I’ve had the chance to know you for a number of years now, you and Serena, how do you look back on the beginning to where you are now?
Let me ask this another way. I know what your daddy thought. He was telling the whole world, “These are gonna be the two best girls to ever play tennis in the history of the world.” So we knew what Richard Williams had to say about it, but did you ever expect that you all would be racking up these Grand Slams the way you are?
Williams: Well, maybe I thought I’d have some more (laughter). As an athlete, it’s never enough. Once you have success, it’s always more. Obviously, some of the things are unbelievable. When it actually does happen, it’s surreal. Like you dreamed it, you worked for it, but to make it happen is something completely different.
So I’m extremely excited about the success Serena and I have both had, but like I said, it’s just never enough, so I’m looking for more.
Tavis: When will you know – I know you get asked this question all the time. It’s always funny for me in sports. You’re 28 and you’re old. You’re 30 and you’re ancient.
Williams: Exactly (laughter).
Tavis: So you start getting asked these questions all the time. How much longer are you going to play? I’m not gonna ask you how much longer you’re gonna play because I know you get tired of being asked that. When will you know it’s time to stop playing?
Williams: Gosh. I would imagine the indicators would be you don’t enjoy it anymore, that it seems like work, that you don’t want to go to work or that you aren’t any good (laughter).
Tavis: That’s a good indication (laughter).
Williams: The last one is a real big indicator (laughter).
Tavis: Right.
Williams: So I don’t have any of those symptoms right now (laughter).
Tavis: Speaking of enjoying going to work, I don’t know how this has happened over the last couple of months. I’ve had everybody on this show who’s caught up in some wardrobe controversy.
Williams: Really?
Tavis: Helen Mirren, the Academy Award winner, was here not long ago. We were talking about the nude photos that she did for New York Magazine and now I have you on, all the hype about your outfit. You know the outfit I’m talking about.
Williams: I do (laughter).
Tavis: What did you make of all the conversation about your outfit?
Williams: Yes, exactly. It was about illusion, okay? So it wasn’t about anything else or certain parts of the body, what everyone’s saying. It was just about – I had this idea to wear lace on the court and I always wanted to do that. So finally it was like it’s time to execute it.
But why wear lace if it’s just on top of black, so it needed to be just lace. So I had to wear nude under it and it was just about a design. Most people aren’t jumping in their lace and I was jumping, running, diving, whatever it took to get to the ball. It was just about doing something different and making it work and challenging myself in design.
Tavis: To your point about design, have you ever worn something in a match that you have looked back on and said, “I wish I hadn’t worn that?”
Williams: In my younger days. Someone just gave me a picture of one of the recent book signings. I thought it was like M.C. Hammer One, M.C. Hammer Two –
Tavis: (Laughter)
Williams: It was bad. I am so glad those days are over (laughter). I was probably only about 16, so thank God I moved away from that quickly. It was bad.
Tavis: Do you think it’s good for the sport for you and Serena to push the fashion envelope the way you do?
Williams: Is it good for the sport? Obviously, I think it brings new fans to the sport. Serena and I have so much fun. We like to let our personalities shine through what we wear on the court, so that’s another way of us expressing ourselves and hopefully our fans getting to know us better.
Tavis: The moment just days ago really when Serena looked in the camera and said, “I got you, Billie.” She goes up one on Billie Jean King. How proud were you for your sister in that moment?
Williams: Exactly. Who would have thought that she would have been in this kind of match in tennis? It was just a wonderful opportunity for her to really bring tennis to the front and also to really be part of something legendary. I’m not sure when that record will be broken, but I’m very proud of her.
Tavis: I want to jump back to the book now. How did you go about selecting these persons I mentioned earlier, some of the folk who’ve written in the book? How did you find – why these people?
Williams: I think most of them have been guests on your show, to be honest.
Tavis: A lot of them have, yeah.
Williams: Really the main link between them all is they’ve played sports and also –
Tavis: – I thought you were gonna say having been on your show, I went down the list of who has sat on my set design and that’s how they made the list. I didn’t know where you were going with that, but anyway, I’m sorry.
Williams: Well, now that you mention it (laughter).
Tavis: Yeah. Go ahead. I’m sorry.
Williams: It was just about did you play sports, and also they were at the top of what they do. These people are innovators, they’re extremely successful at what they do, they’ve changed their game, whatever game they’re in and they’ve overcome obstacles.
So really that was the wish list and, when people said yes, I was so excited. We’d have our little celebration, emails or phone calls, “Oh, so-and-so said okay,” “Bill Clinton, he booked it and we’re so excited.” It was a real journey.
Tavis: When you personally, Venus Williams, look at some of the folk you have in the book, people like Magic Johnson, for example, what do you take from the way that certain individuals have made the transition? I know you’re not retiring, but folk who’ve made the transition successfully from the world of sports into business.
What are you looking for? What are you trying to take away from those kinds of individuals like Magic, for example?
Williams: I think nowadays it’s so easy as an athlete to become a statistic whether or not you lose everything or having trouble or whatever it may be.
So I think Magic Johnson is a role model for not only everyone, but also for athletes of really how you can turn your success on the court to off the court. So he’s really done an amazing job not only with being successful, but also giving back to the community.
Tavis: To your point about athletes ending up statistics, so often athletes end up a stat because they make all this money. We’ve been seeing these stories all this year. I don’t even want to call the names, but I’m completely and constantly blown away when I look at some of the millions and millions and millions of dollars these athletes have made in the NBA and the NFL.
I have a hard time just believing the story when I read it that they’re broke, that they filed bankruptcy. I just don’t understand how you can make all that money. I mean, I get it. You spend more than you take in and that makes you broke. I get that part basically (laughter).
But since you mentioned about ending up a stat and not wanting to end up a stat, you have concerns about that? How do you approach your business to make sure that you don’t end up one of those stats?
Williams: My motto has always been that you can’t say, “Oh, it won’t happen to me.” You have to say, “That can happen to me.” So always be aware that things can happen. You have to really watch what you’re spending. You have to watch people around you. You have to watch your own finances.
That takes effort because, as an athlete, you’re spending so much time dealing with trying to be the best, dealing with media and everything in between that you can let it get away. I think sometimes also not being in reality. For me, I just try to say, “This could be me, so how do I make it not me?”
Tavis: How do you decide – one of my sisters is here visiting me and we were watching TV last night and up pops Venus on a TV commercial. We were laughing because, when we grew up, my mother – she probably still does – she washes every night. She used to use Tide all the time growing up. So I’m flipping channels last night watching TV. Up pops the Venus commercial, you and your Tide commercial.
I told my sister last night, “I’m gonna ask Venus about this when I see her tomorrow” and that is how you decide, particularly at this point in your career with all the products and institutions and individuals who you could co-brand with, what’s your process for figuring out who you want to be in business with since so many people want to be in business with you?
Williams: I think it’s really about what works. All the partners that I partner with, they also give back to the community. So Tide is also Loads of Hope. They do a great job of giving back to the community, so that’s very important for me too. It’s definitely on my list.
Also, I like to do fun things too. I thought the Tide commercial was very fun in working with them. Really, when it works, it works and you know if it will.
Tavis: I want to get back to the book again. I assume to your earlier point that, when you are celebrating because so-and-so came through or so-and-so agreed to do it, I assume you have some of these stories here that stand out for you. Grab one or two stories for me and tell me in terms of the essays which ones you really resonated with.
Williams: Well, there’s a few. I love William Coyne’s essay.
Tavis: Former Defense Secretary, yeah.
Williams: Yes. He talks about his relationship with his father, growing up playing basketball. He grew up in Maine. So in the winter, he would go out and just play until he was too cold to continue. You can imagine how cold it is in Maine.
He talked about just how sport prepared him for his elections and for his political career and how he walked 22 miles a day in one of his campaigns, New Hampshire to Canada. That really resonated with me. It was a very touching story, very motivating story.
Alfredo Quinones, a brain surgeon, was an immigrant, a migrant worker. He came over from Mexico and he was a boxer and really just started, not even speaking English, and working pulling weeds. Ten years later, he’s in medical school. So if you can imagine that, his message was “Never quit” and how going from failure to failure sometimes is a part of success.
I really enjoyed that because of the interesting way of looking at it, but sometimes you don’t always make where you want to go, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t getting there.
Tavis: You mentioned William Coyne and his relationship to his father. I mentioned your father earlier. How has your relationship with your father – I mean, when you all came on the scene, it was your dad who we got to know first basically. I mean, he introduced us to his girls. But how has your relationship with your father changed over the years? We don’t see your dad.
I mean, I’m sure you planned it this way. He came out first, introduced us to y’all, now y’all are out front and we rarely see your father. I haven’t seen your father in quite a while now, so how has the relationship changed over the years as you have moved out front, you and Serena?
Williams: Well, you know, he went to so many matches and so many practices. I’ve never seen anyone with such energy. He’s always saying, “Whenever you’re ready to practice, I’m not doing anything. You know, I’m ready for you.” He’ll say, “Oh, if you want to come out at midnight, we’re ready.” I don’t how he does it. Singles, doubles, another singles, 12 hours a day of the tennis. But he’s a great guy. He’s really inspired me.
If you read the preface to the book, how my parents have been so instrumental to where I am today. I would have never even dreamed of picking up a tennis racket, let alone writing a book. They’re the ones that encouraged me to always be involved in giving back to the community, so they’ve really been great, not just my dad.
Tavis: To your point about your dad being willing to practice and anxious to practice whenever you want to, even now after all these years, even when you’re the best at what you do and you’re ranked number one in the world, I would assume that there are times, there are days, there are moments when you get tired of doing it, when you don’t want to practice, when you aren’t motivated. Do you have those moments every now and again?
Williams: Like anyone else, I enjoy my days off. You know, when it’s Sunday and it’s my day off, I feel good. But when it’s Monday, I can’t imagine taking that day off. I have to go to practice.
So while I think it’s important to pace yourself and to be balanced and have time off, at the same time I’m eager to be doing what I do. So I’m human. I enjoy time off, but I really want to be out there on the court.
Tavis: Your practice regimen has changed over the years?
Williams: Yes, it has. Growing up, we had all day. That’s what you do. You just hit until you don’t even think because it comes naturally. So that takes hours and it takes years. Now it’s about really longevity and being easy on our bodies and being ready for our matches.
As opposed to so much time on the court, I spend a lot of time in the gym to prevent injuries. Plus philosophy is always changing. What exercise did you do and how you should eat and staying updated on all of that.
Tavis: I’m thinking now, as you mentioned, that you’re in the gym now to prevent injuries. When you and Serena came on the scene – it’s hard to imagine you’ve been at this 15 years now professionally. It’s hard to imagine.
But when you and Serena first came on the scene, it was your physical style of play. Some folk couldn’t handle it and there were a bunch of haters. I remember like it was yesterday all the haters.
It was as if you all were so good because of your physique, not because you practiced, not because you worked hard, not because you were strategic in how you played the game. I hated these commentators who tried to make it about your physique and your physicality.
Having said that, you all changed the game (laughter). Everybody now is in the gym. Everybody’s trying to work out. Everybody recognizes that physique is a part of being able to successfully play against Serena and Venus, but you’re telling me you’re doing it mostly now to prevent injuries, not for any other reason, I suspect.
Williams: Yeah, exactly. If you stay strong and stay stable, as a key word for me, you get less injuries. You can prevent what could happen. So I’ve learned a lot about that.
Yeah, we’re strong. We definitely have a lot of genetic pluses. I’m 6-1, I’m very tall, but I happen to be pretty fast. So it’s like an oxymoron, if you want to say. It’s something strange (laughter). But at the same time, I feel like I do have a strategy and I’m very quick at figuring out strategies on the court.
So I find that to be my secret weapon because maybe someone doesn’t think I’m that smart on the course. So go ahead, think I’m dumb, but I got you on the back side. I find if people don’t recognize your strength, it’s better for me.
Tavis: What do you make of your physicality, that and your sister, that has in fact changed the game? What do you make of that process over these 15 years?
Williams: I think obviously a lot of it is definitely just genetic, some of it. A lot of it is technique. Our dad has these new ideas of how you should technically play the game for more power, how to cover the court better. I mean, it’s training and he had these new ideas.
In essence, he changed the game and we were just the people that were out there playing this game that he thought of. He doesn’t really get credit for that.
Tavis: But I assume you’ve noticed as we have obviously that other folk have changed their game in response to the physicality.
Williams: Sometimes we really think, “Gosh, she’s copying my move.” (Laughter) “You didn’t see that? She’s trying to do what I did.” We’ve noticed, but it’s flattering.
It’s flattering to see people come up, younger players come up, and you see them playing your game. It means they were watching and dreaming on TV that they could be out there doing it too. They come out and are doing it, so it’s exciting to have that part in our sport.
Tavis: Only you and Serena can answer this question in this unique say, I think. As you travel the country, for that matter, travel the world, do you visually see the impact that you all have had in kids of color picking up tennis rackets? Do you see evidence of this, that the numbers are increasing?
Williams: I’m not sure exactly what the numbers are and I’m not out there regularly enough on a grassroots level. I often do kids’ clinics, but usually it’s in conjunction with education, youth centers and things like that. So as far as people really going out there and training to be professionals, I definitely would love that, but I just want them to play sports.
All the time when I see kids, I tell them, “Okay, keep playing.” You got to stay in the game and continue to do something positive in sports because it really leads to success in other parts of life.
Tavis: How depressing, then, must it be – I assume you see it; I see it all the time. Here you and your sister are just, you know, specimens of beautiful physique and that has to be juxtaposed against the childhood obesity not just in our community, but across the country. So many kids out of shape.
Williams: Yeah, things have changed a lot. Even when I was a younger person, I was always outside. I think so much has changed with kids with, I think, TV and with games and all the other things that they can be doing outside or being active.
So it’s a battle and we just have to educate kids and parents also, so hopefully the next generation will be less and also this generation will be able to get healthier.
Tavis: So back to V Starr. I want to end where we began. How are you balancing out at this point the tennis and the business and when do you suspect you’ll start moving more and more into the business mode?
Williams: Well, I feel like I’m already in business mode. It takes a lot of work to have an interior design company. It takes a lot of work to have a fashion brand and do design and I enjoy that.
There’s a lot of time that I spend on the court, a lot of time that I spend on the court. But I feel like now is the time to make that transition and I’m looking forward to my life after tennis, but I have to wait a while.
Tavis: What’s a while mean?
Williams: While means a few more Olympics and that’s a while (laughter).
Tavis: Exactly. They come around once every four years.
Williams: Exactly.
Tavis: A few more. That’s like 12 years.
Williams: 12 years.
Tavis: Well, if anybody can pull it off, Venus can. It’s a provocative and a wonderful new book. It’s called Come to Win: Business leaders, artists, doctors, other visionaries on how sports can help you top your profession by Venus Williams. Venus, good to have you on the program.
Williams: Thank you so much. That was fun.
Tavis: You’re welcome back to your set whenever you want.
Williams: Thank you so much.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm