Back In the Game

Venus Williams’s Big Comeback to Tennis and Fashion

The tennis champion returned to win in the Sony Ericcson Open. She tells Isabel Wilkinson about the return of her clothing line and her Olympics dreams.

Venus Williams is back. After a six-month hiatus, the tennis champion returned to the court Wednesday to defeat Kimiko Date-Krumm, her first-round opponent in the Sony Ericsson Open. It was, seemingly, a breeze.

“It went by so fast, I didn’t know how I was winning points,” Williams told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “It was crazy and fun and nerve-wracking.”

We last saw Venus at the U.S. Open in September, before she dramatically withdrew from the tournament due to Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic fatigue. “It was just energy-sucking and I just couldn’t play pro tennis,” she said at the time. Since then, Williams has sought treatment, which has included a new diet. (She says she has now cut out processed foods and sugars—and calls herself a “chea-gan," or cheating vegan.) She was once ranked No. 1 in the world, and has won seven Grand Slam titles and three Olympics gold medals, but now sits at No. 134.

“Wednesday night was a big step on the road to reestablishing Williams’s career, as she showed little rust, fatigue—or mercy for that matter,” wrote Joanne Gerstner of ESPN.

“I still know how to play tennis,” Williams tells us. “More than anything, my perspective has changed. You still have to be tough on those big points but at the same time, I don’t take anything for granted. I’m coming into it with nothing to lose because I was close to losing everything. It’s a whole new life for me.” (During her break from tennis, Williams has stayed busy by hosting a local arts contest, The EleVen by Venus Williams Empowering Artists Through The Arts T-Shirt Contest, which she recently staged in Miami.)

On Wednesday, Williams wore long, dangling, diamond disco-ball earrings that swung as she ran for each point, a tiny cross on a silver chain around her neck, and a white visor. She also wore a white and black dress with pink ribbing, marked delicately with the letter “V”—the logo of EleVen, the fashion line she has also resurrected this week after it folded four years ago because its licenser, Steve & Barry’s, went bankrupt.

EleVen’s new collection is in keeping with what we’ve seen Venus wear over the years—colorful, bold, and extremely tight. The new collection includes activewear for both men and women—and while it seems to be largely tennis-focused, the line is geared for on and off the court. The “Oh & Oh” dress—inspired by the game’s scoring system—which Williams debuted Wednesday night, is already sold out, she says. Her next goal is to see up-and-coming tennis stars wear the EleVen designs. (Technically, her sister Serena can’t wear EleVen, because she’s under a contract with Nike.)

When it comes to fashion, Williams may be best remembered for a few of her scene-stealing ensembles over the years. There was the white fringe dress (inspired by Tina Turner) she wore to Wimbledon in 2010, a red corset number in Madrid earlier that year, and the famous black lace “Can-Can dress,” with sewn-in skin-colored briefs at the French Open, which caused a frenzy because they made her look naked.

“I don’t regret it at all,” she says of that dress now. “I always wanted to do lace on the court, and my goal was to create the illusion of lace over skin. That was my favorite design. I have to top that.”

There has been jewelry too, lots of it: at the U.S. Open in 2005, Williams wore a giant rhinestone-covered ring and a jumble of necklaces on the court. Now, she says she’s toned it down, wearing a ritualistic “match ring” and a pair of carefully selected earrings. “Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize,” she says. “If you don’t accessorize, someone else will. Even on the court.”

She’s currently resurrecting her career and reviving EleVen, but Venus’s sights are set squarely on London, where she hopes to compete in the 2012 Olympics this summer. “I did everything I could just to be back,” she says, explaining that she returned to the game as soon as she could in order to qualify for London. “I feel confident because I’ve been able to achieve so many things in my life, and this is another thing that I have to conquer and move forward to.”

And, as she puts it, that doesn’t necessarily mean coming home with the gold. “It’s all about participating,” she says, always sportsmanlike. “If you win, that’s the cherry on the cake. And the whipped cream. And the nuts.”