But on Friday, greatness had to practice.
In the calm of the morning, the stadium came back to life. A young employee rushes around placing streamers around the lower bowl, while two men walk into flower arrangements and place one behind each player’s seat. Forklift carrying Jose Cuervo’s crates and boxes. Workers apply a fresh coat of blue and red paint to the stairs leading to the stadiums.
And there’s Venus, tall and skinny and dressed in an emerald costume, hitting balls just after 10 a.m.
This is a private session, with two hours in the main court set aside for herself and a small entourage of her coach, massage therapist and a big guy apparently for security. This is the most intimate flower of the court, the symbol in the quiet hours in honor of its greatness. It is still necessary to take care of him, discipline him and treat him with respect. Those with great skill don’t take it seriously, so she – she’s 42 and has nothing to prove – is still working. She draws an audience.
Three photographers were spread out in different areas across the runway. A group of employees linger, holding their cell phones because even while they’re on the clock they want proof of what’s happening in front of them. A man wearing a red handkerchief sits near a woman holding a sleeping child. Above them sits a mocha-skinned girl with long legs and her hair in braids. She’s here to witness greatness, too.
Venus returns balls from her coach and batting partner for the day, a local player named Leon Settles. He must have felt like waking up and getting a call that Ginger Rogers needed a tap dance partner. The Settlers have always admired Venus, so he was initially edgy on the court even though he hides it well. Venus greets before they begin to strike, but when the Settlers discover she’s only here to work, he warns himself not to smile unless you smile first.
However, during a short break, even Cettles couldn’t help himself. He keeps one of the tennis balls that touched the racket of Venus and gives it to the girl with the braids. He knows that greatness must be shared.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking because [Venus] change my life. Lots of black kids and I’m sure a lot of Americans will, period. Many of us looked at Venus and her sister Serena,” Settles later said. “So it was a dream in reality, to be in my home court and hit a legend herself. I can’t even explain it.”
It snaps into pauses when searching for the right words. But I understood. Being so close to greatness can make you lose your cool.
When her coach shoots a ball into the stands, Venus turns. Narrowing her eyes, she searches for the missing ball but all she finds is the closest person out there – me. And I freeze.
The fate of Venus’ coaching before her first singles match in nearly a year depends on the decisive actions of the slow-moving columnist who tells no one: “Should I understand this? Should I get this ball?” But finally, I got to work, and for reasons I still can’t explain it, I exaggerated hoisting the missing award over my head like a soccer girl at Wimbledon. It felt like passing a fallen brush to Monet, throwing the ball back to Venus. She twists it, then answers: “Where’s the second?”
Increasing in intensity, she is now cruising around in the ball. Her coach serves and returns fiercely. Send a reply after sending a basic ground kick. A boring iteration she’s done for over two decades, starting at the public courts in Compton, California, with her father and younger sister.
Even after rising to number one in the world 20 years ago and winning 49 singles titles overall, she’s still practicing her basics. Sweat begins to darken her green outfit because 79 degrees in Washington is not an ordinary 79 degrees. Alternatively, 79 degrees in Washington is hot and sticky and feels like you’re standing at the top of a long, spiral staircase to hell. So, she needs a break.
Almost 30 minutes inside, she sits down, shakes off the towels, reaches for her red Wilson bag, for her phone. But she doesn’t look at him long and puts him on her way to take a handful of grapes, and then peaches. Her coach is seated next to her but Venus continues to stare straight ahead, holding her meal in her right hand and chewing. Her attitude doesn’t change even when her coach pops up and starts hitting with the Settlers. It doesn’t follow baaanggg And the Albabah From submission and back. It should feel like white noise at this point for her. She is locked inside and continues to stare forward.
She’s back on the field and Michael Hansley, Barback Hired for the day, finds its way to the stadium. He heard she was training and brought his cell phone with him. Hansley, 35, says he grew up a fan of the Williams sisters, and after watching the biopic based on their father, “King Richard” — four times and counting — he became even more inspired. This explains why he’s the only person bold enough to shout, “Venus, I love you!”
She smiles softly and waves at him.
“It was beautiful,” Hansley says of watching her rehearse for even a few minutes. “It’s so beautiful. Just seeing her play or warm up or something. I wanted to get a shot at her. I didn’t want to get into trouble though.”
Mark Ain, founder and owner of the Washington Castles Tennis Club, won’t be afraid to run into trouble for the bees – lining up to the playing surface with his young son Charlie.
“I brought my own Mini-Mi,” Ayn said as he greeted Venus, who previously played for Castells.
She offers an air hug, because of all the sweat, and asks Charlie if he likes tennis. She then points to the blue umbrella where all the names of the Citi Open winners are displayed. Charlie shows where his name will go.
When the visit with Eins is over, Venus is back in action. Now, it’s her service. Her operation: transferring weight to her back foot, straightening her front leg and lengthening her body for tossing. Grace and elegance in motion. She shines with her coach and smiles at Settles, and now he can smile again.
At 11:36 a.m. it’s now time to put it all together and play against the Settles. This beautiful transmission is now a powerful weapon and has made its way again, walking down the hallway with a co-worker.
“The best of all. The greatest!” Hansley said to him, not taking his eyes off Venus.
By noon, it was over. It has outlasted most curious buggers. The silence over her work ethic and the intimacy of her dedication witnessed as Contract Officer and Millionaire’s Son. By an unranked batting partner and the girl in the stands who dreams of being on that court one day.
Before she left, she headed to the stands to pick up the baby, Legend’s son. He asks for a picture with Venus smiling.
“A legend with a legend,” he says.
When a little legend grows up, his father will show him that picture. And he will know what greatness looks like.