“Katie, I am noting your split step isn’t happening.” Those words set into motion the best tennis lesson I’ve ever received. It was from Venus Williams.
I had traveled from New York to West Palm Beach, Fla., to spend an afternoon with Ms. Williams, to report on her off-court endeavors. (She is studying for a master’s degree in interior architecture and is the founder of two businesses: a fitness-wear and athleisure company called EleVen by Venus Williams and V*Starr Interiors, a design firm.)
But first, we were meeting at the courts where she and her sister Serena Williams practice, at the BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
I knew from my back-and-forth with the EleVen publicist that I, a moderately fit, rather uncoordinated 44-year-old mother of two, might be called upon to hit a few balls with Ms. Williams, the 6-foot-1 five-time Wimbledon singles champion.
But I had not anticipated sprinting up and down the court and running in circles around cans of tennis balls at the behest of one of the greatest players in history. It was the most fun I’ve had at work all summer.
Before we get to the split step, let me tell you what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a ball that Ms. Williams has hit to you about as softly as she likely is able: It’s terrifying. My strategy was to try to have my racket make contact with the ball. When I succeeded, I squeezed the grip as much as I could to prevent the racket from flying out of my grasp.
It was after this point that Ms. Williams called out my footwork. She demonstrated the importance of hopping into a wide-legged ready position after hitting each ground stroke from the baseline.
She then asked her hitting partner, Jermaine Jenkins, to feed balls to me toward the corners, forcing me to run, hit the ball, run back to the center of the baseline and split-step. And again. And again.
“You win with your feet,” she said. “It looks easy and it’s not.”
Next we worked on our (our!) sidestepping, going from the forehand side of the court to the backhand side of the court (and back again) while facing the net.
I watched her sashay from side to side and then took my turn. “You are so unbelievably graceful,” I said to her, as I panted.
She shrugged her shoulders and replied, “Win pretty, win ugly, just win.”
Then she had me run sprints. Then she had me go the length of the court by leaping on one foot, holding the landing and then leaping on the next. Then there were the high jumps. Then I was drenched.
Ms. Williams was ready to return to preparing for the United States Open. She and Mr. Jenkins set up a cardio-intensive cross-court drill. She asked her assistant, Zebe Haupt, to hit with me on the adjacent court: “Serena’s court” as she referred to it.
Cocky from my triumph of not breaking a leg or having a heart attack, I called out, “I’ll play the role of Serena.”
Venus answered, “If you want to be Serena, you better be prepared to serve at 120 miles an hour and win over 22 majors. That’s pressure even for me.”
I guess Venus Williams and I have at least one thing in common.