The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venus Williams inspires awe — whether competing or just practicing

Venus Williams practices for the Citi Open. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)

A sold-out crowd will come to Rock Creek Park Tennis Center on Monday night. There on the main court, fans will watch seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams make her debut at the Citi Open. There will be applause at the first sight of her and roars after her winners, and everyone from the box seats to the bleachers will be united in the thrill of witnessing greatness at work.

But even greatness has to practice.

In the quiet of Friday morning, the stadium is buzzing back to life. A young staffer rushes around positioning placards around the lower bowl while two men walk down floral arrangements and place one behind each player’s bench. A forklift carries boxes and boxes of Jose Cuervo. Workers apply a fresh coat of blue and red paint on the stairs leading to the courts.

And there is Venus, tall and lean and wearing an emerald outfit, hitting balls shortly after 10 a.m.

This is a private session, two hours allotted on the main court all to herself and a small entourage of her coach, massage therapist and a large man seemingly there for security. This is Venus at her most intimate on the court, the icon in the quiet hours paying tribute to her greatness. It still must be cared for and fine-tuned and treated with respect. Those who possess great skill do not take it lightly, so there she is — at 42 and with nothing to prove — still working. And she’s drawing an audience.

Three photographers fan out to different areas across the grandstand. A scattering of staffers lingers, holding up their cellphones because even while on the clock they want proof of what is happening in front of them. A man with a red bandanna sits near a woman who holds a sleeping baby. Above them sits a mocha-skinned girl with long legs and her hair in braids. She’s here to witness greatness, too.

Venus is returning balls from both her coach and hitting partner for the day, a local player named Leon Vessels. It must have felt like waking up and getting the call that Ginger Rogers needs a tap dance partner. Vessels has long admired Venus, so he’s edgy on the court at first, though he hides it well. He greets Venus before they start hitting, but when Vessels picks up that she’s just here to work, he warns himself not to smile unless she smiles first.

During a short break, however, even Vessels can’t help himself. He keeps one of the tennis balls that touched Venus’s racket and gives it to the little girl with the braids. He knows greatness should be shared.

“It was a little nerve-racking because [Venus] changed my life. A lot of Black kids — and I’m sure a lot of Americans, period — a lot of us looked up to Venus and her sister Serena,” Vessels would say later. “So it was actually a dream, being on my home court and hitting with a legend herself. I can’t even explain it.”

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Vessels pauses in search of the right words. But I get it. Being in proximity of greatness can make you lose your composure.

When her coach launches a ball into the stands, Venus turns around. Narrowing her eyes, she searches for the lost ball, but all she finds is the closest person available — me. And I freeze.

The fate of Venus’s practice ahead of her first singles match in almost a year rests on the decisive actions of the slow-moving columnist who is blurting out to no one: “Should I get that? Should I get that ball?” But finally I spring into action and, for reasons I still can’t explain, exaggeratedly loft the missing prize over my head like a Wimbledon ballgirl. Feeling as if I’m passing a fallen brush to Monet, I toss the ball back to Venus. She corrals it, then replies, “Where’s the second one?”

Her intensity ramps up, and now she’s walloping the ball. Her coach serves, and she returns with ferocity. Returning serve after serve with a basic groundstroke. A tedious repetition that she has done for more than two decades, beginning on public courts in Compton, Calif., with her father and younger sister.

Even after ascending to No. 1 in the world 20 years ago and winning 49 singles titles overall, she still practices her fundamentals. Sweat begins to darken her green outfit because 79 degrees in Washington is not a normal 79 degrees. Instead, 79 degrees in Washington is hot and sticky and feels as though you are standing at the top of a long, spiraling staircase to hell. So she needs a break.

Almost 30 minutes in, she sits, towels off and reaches into her red Wilson bag for her phone. But she doesn’t look at it long and puts it away to take a handful of grapes, then a peach. Her coach sits next to her, but Venus continues to stare straight ahead, holding her snack in her right hand and chewing. Her stance doesn’t change even when her coach pops up and starts hitting with Vessels. She doesn’t follow the baaanggg and baaahhhp of the serve and the return. It must feel like white noise at this point to her. She is locked in and keeps staring 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 practicing and brought along his cellphone to take photos. 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’s even more inspired. This explains why he’s the only one bold enough to yell out, “Venus, I love you!”

She smiles faintly and waves in his direction.

“It was beautiful. It’s unexplainable,” Hansley says about watching her practice, if only for a few minutes. “It’s very beautiful. Just to see her play, warming up or anything. I wanted to get a shot off against her. I didn’t want to get in trouble, though.”

Mark Ein, the founder and owner of the Washington Kastles tennis club, would have no fears of getting in trouble for beelining down to the playing surface with his young son Charlie.

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“I brought my Mini-me,” Ein says as he greets Venus, who formerly played for the Kastles.

She offers an air hug because of all the sweat, and asks Charlie whether he likes tennis. She then points toward the blue awning where all the names of the Citi Open winners are displayed. She shows Charlie where his name would go.

When the visit with the Eins concludes, Venus gets back to work. Now it’s her serve. Her process: She shifts weight to her back foot, straightens her front leg and elongates her body for the toss. Grace and elegance in motion. She aces her coach and smiles at Vessels, who now can smile back.

At 11:36 a.m., it’s time to put it all together and play against Vessels. That beautiful serve now becomes a powerful weapon, and Hansley has made his way back in, walking the concourse with a co-worker.

“The greatest to ever do it. The greatest!” Hansley says to him, never taking his eyes off Venus.

By noon, she’s done. She has outlasted most of the curious eavesdroppers. The silence of her work ethic and the intimacy of her dedication, witnessed by the contract employee and the millionaire’s son. By the unranked hitting partner and the girl in the stands who dreams of being on that court one day.

Before she leaves, Vessels heads to the stands to grab the baby, his son Legend. He requests a photo with Venus, and she’s all smiles.

“A Legend with a legend,” he says.

When little Legend is old enough, his dad will show him that picture. And he will know what greatness looks like.

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