WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Venus Williams’s ability to get around a tennis court quickly is well known. She is 6-foot-1 and nearly can get from one side to the other in a single side-step-leap-slide. Less known is her speed in taking meetings.
Earlier this week, on Tuesday, Ms. Williams hit nearly every department of her fashion and interior design companies in about an hour and a half.
It was a few days after she had returned from Rio de Janeiro, where she won a silver medal in mixed doubles tennis, and one day before she was to leave for New York for the United States Open, which begins Aug. 29. In the morning, she had practiced for two hours in the sweltering sun of South Florida in summer, run home for a shower and then come to the office with Harry, her 9-year-old Havanese, in tow.
Dressed in a hot pink tank top, heather gray capri yoga pants and hot pink sneakers, she hovered over a couch on which a panoply of tennis clothes had been draped: short-skirted tennis dresses with a bright geometric pattern; skirts in the same pattern; blue tank tops; visors; headbands; a fuchsia hoodie.
“I have been waiting to wear this dress, it is such a fun dress to wear,” she said as she decided on one of the graphic dresses, the flagship piece of the new Prism collection, which she will debut next week on her own sort of New York runway, a tennis court in Queens.
The agenda for this gathering was “scripting,” in which an athlete chooses which outfits she will wear for tournament play. “What about this?” asked her marketing director, Marlon LeWinter, pointing to a blue sleeveless top. “If it’s daytime,” Ms. Williams answered, “I may want something else because that color can actually attract a lot of heat.”
To all of her matches at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in fact to all of her matches everywhere, Ms. Williams, 36, wears EleVen by Venus Williams, her fitness and athleisure clothing line. At the Olympics, she wore a Wonder Woman-inspired dress of her own design, and had red strands woven into her braids (“my Olympic hair,” she called it).
As she sifted through the Prism options, she was rethinking her braids. “The big question is what hair color now,” she said as she pointed to splashes of blue and magenta in the dress’s pattern. She quickly dismissed a suggestion that she braid in strands of all the colors. “Too schizophrenic,” she said. “I’m liking the orange.” Next meeting.
Ms. Williams became a professional tennis player in 1994, when she was 14 years old, and quickly emerged onto the national tennis scene. She has won seven Grand Slam singles events and 14 more in women’s doubles, playing alongside her sister Serena, 34. Venus has won five Wimbledon singles titles. In 2002, she became the first African-American woman to earn the world’s top ranking in tennis since the onset of the open era in the late 1960s.
By 2011, though, her tennis career had been slowed by illness and injury. She announced she was suffering from Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that results in joint pain and sometimes crushing fatigue, among other symptoms, and withdrew from the second round of the United States Open.
But she has regained momentum. She reached the semifinals in women’s singles at Wimbledon this summer and won doubles with her sister. Venus is once again in the top 10, ranked sixth in the world (Serena is ranked No. 1) and is seeded sixth at the United States Open. “I never would have predicted I would have played this long, apparently you can play this long I am learning,” she said with a laugh. “At some point it’s got to end and it will be an extremely sad day.” But not yet.
Even when she doesn’t win, she (and her sister) still garner plenty of attention. Though Venus lost in the first round of singles at the Olympics — she spiked a fever of 103 degrees the night before the match — her gold-medal record became one of the biggest stories to come out of the tennis portion of the Games when a British broadcaster congratulated Andy Murray on being the first tennis player to win two gold medals. Mr. Murray corrected him, replying, “Venus and Serena have won four each.”
“People have been talking about this a lot,” Venus said when asked about this. “Kudos to Andy Murray.”
She trains every day, playing a few hours of tennis and then hitting the gym for plyometrics or other strength-building programs. She tries to take a day off, here and there. She takes November off altogether, no workouts at all, except for the dance classes that she began to take regularly once she and Serena added a dance competition to their annual Williams Invitational friends-and-family reunion.
Venus attributes her confidence as a designer to her sister. When Venus started out, her first collection was too conservative, she said, and had to be scrapped. “The real EleVen started to emerge after,” she said. “I designed a dress and I asked Serena what she thought. She said, ‘Oh my god, I love it!’ That’s when my shoulders went up and I started feeling confident. Because you know sisters, they’re always honest.”
About 10 years ago, she began to build a foundation for life off the tennis court by studying fashion and interior design, and business. In deciding on an undergraduate program focused on business administration, Ms. Williams contacted David Frantz, a professor of management at Indiana University East.
“When she called up I thought it was one of my friends playing a practical joke,” said Professor Frantz, who become Ms. Williams’s adviser. “She was an excellent student.” She graduated with a bachelor of science degree in business administration in August 2015. She said she is now studying for a master’s degree in interior architecture.
All the coursework has fed into her two main businesses. EleVen, a four-year-old company, is undergoing a serious reboot since Ms. Williams hired two seasoned retail executives last year to help her centralize and take charge of operations.
With a focus on getting the tennis skirts, yoga pants and lesiurewear into more boutiques and starting to leverage Ms. Williams’s international popularity, sales volume has increased by three times, according to Ilana Rosen, EleVen’s chief operating officer and Ms. Williams’s close professional confidante. Also operating from the same space is Ms. Williams’s V*Starr Interiors, a design firm with seven employees, and clients ranging from tennis clubs to luxury residential developers.
The two companies sometimes collaborate. V*Starr designed the hangout space adjacent to a rooftop tennis court in the Hamptons and covered throw-pillows in EleVen fabric.
Steven Schwartz, the chief executive officer of the Midtown Athletic Club chain, recently met with Ms. Williams and Ms. Rosen. He has decided to both carry the EleVen line and to hire V*Starr to help design the tennis lounge and some hotel suites at its flagship club in Chicago, which is under renovation.
“She wins Wimbledon doubles on Saturday afternoon and she comes to Chicago on Tuesday,” Mr. Schwartz said. “We met with her all afternoon. Athletic ability fades, and she is smart enough to know this, and she is humble enough to work with.”
At the office, she showed easy camaraderie with her employees. “Everyone here is in their lane, but they’re expected to speed,” she said. Ms. Williams sketches the EleVen designs herself on velum paper; she worked on her most recent batch in Paris, while playing in the French Open.
Sipping a green juice (she drinks so much water on the court that she avoids it elsewhere), she sat on a swivel chair as V*Starr designers filled her in on current projects.
Sonya Haffey, the company design director, explained that they were almost finished with a proposal being sent to a Miami hotel developer. Ms. Haffey was concerned about some of the constraints imposed by the potential client. “The art needs come in under $130 per piece,” she said, with an accessories budget of $200 an item.
Ms. Williams leaned back. “Well,” she said, “let’s find the best lamps we can for $200.” She turned her chair to look at a floor plan for a space they were designing for a luxury multifamily building. Since she had last seen the plans, the client had asked the V*Starr team for alterations. “I am still brokenhearted over the changes,” Ms. Williams said. “I guess I need to move on.”
Then she did, calling out a question to a woman sitting a few desks away. “Lorena, you started class yet? You need to teach me AutoCAD,” she said, referring to a computer software application for design and architecture. Lorena Baldridge is an intern who has been at V*Starr for two months.
Ms. Williams eventually headed back into the warehouse space from where the orders of EleVen activewear are shipped to online customers and the boutiques, spas and fitness clubs that carry it. The inventory had been reorganized to make room for incoming shipments of the Prism collection.
She climbed ladders and rooted through bins looking for certain pieces to pack into a box. She likes occasionally to tuck handwritten thank-you notes into packages going off to unsuspecting customers. “I pitch in, every little bit helps, though I think they secretly check the boxes I pack to make sure I didn’t screw anything up,” she said.
Ms. Williams’s main office is still the tennis court. On Tuesday, she arrived for practice at her preferred court at BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., a little later than she had planned. She was running a fever the night before.
Today’s practice, she said, would be modified. Instead of 20-minute-long cardio baseline drills, there would be 10-minute drills. And she would forgo her after-tennis workout. “I usually just power through,” she said. “I’m trying to make better choices.”
To help combat the effect of Sjogren’s syndrome, she pays close attention to her diet. She is “chegan,” as she put it, a vegan who sometimes cheats. (“I like butter,” she said.) When Serena told her she was cutting out sugar, Venus followed suit. “It’s working very well for helping with energy,” she said. “I’m on Day 58. I have a little app and it keeps track.”
For the United States Open, particularly, she needs to maintain her energy. “The U.S. Open is very New York,” she said. “It is fast-paced, intense, you have to fight. Just getting on-site is an effort.”
She arrived for the practice session with her hitting partner, Jermaine Jenkins. He lives in Orlando, Fla., but had come to town to help her practice after Rio and before the year’s final major. He has been hitting with her the past year, since they met the year before at the French Open. Also joining was her assistant of six weeks, Zebe Haupt. His mother is friends with Venus’s mother. This is how things work in her life: Her network springs from her family.
On her court, she and Mr. Jenkins worked on her cross-court backhand. She thwacked the ball and unleashed a signature grunt.
“Let me try that again,” she called out to him. He fed her another and another. Harry puttered around on the adjacent court, which is where Serena usually practices. He will travel with her to New York but was unable to go to Rio. “I couldn’t get an Olympic pass for him,” Ms. Williams said.
On a water break, she tipped her head toward a couple practicing several counts away. “I need to congratulate her, I haven’t seen her since they got married,” she said, and remarked that similar fitness interests are good for family ties. “Look at us,” she said, “Serena and I are still playing doubles.”
Serena is a huge part of Venus’s life; even in her absence, that is obvious. When you ask Venus a question about her life or tennis, she often answers using the pronoun “we.” (Are her parents proud of her? “I think they’re proud because we are good daughters,” Venus said.)
They have played against each other in the finals of eight Grand Slam events; Serena has beaten Venus six times. Venus seems prepared for the inevitable questions about sibling rivalry.
“You probably want to win because you’re the older sister and the younger sister wants to win because she’s the younger sister. We don’t talk about it much,” she said, later adding, “Losing is no fun no matter who you lose to. Beating her is not as exciting as beating someone else. I care. I care if she wins or doesn’t.” As she has gotten older, she has become more nervous watching Serena play. “It’s hard for me to watch her matches,” she said.
Venus becomes animated when she talks about Serena. It’s endearing. “When you’re a big sister,” she said, “it’s a great job. I don’t know how little sisters feel about their job, but when you’re a big sister, you’re supposed to take care of everything. And you feel good about it, I do.”
Perhaps this has informed Venus’s role advocating fair treatment of women tennis players. She began arguing for pay equity in prize money as far back as 1998, when she was 18, and then more famously took the case to a Grand Slam committee in a boardroom at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in 2005, the day before she would win at Wimbledon. She was the subject of a documentary, “Venus Vs.” made by Ava DuVernay, the trailblazing filmmaker whom Disney selected to direct “A Wrinkle in Time.”
More recently, at Wimbledon this year, she spoke out for fair court assignments for women, after playing a match on one of the club’s lower-profile courts.
Munching on kale chips in the EleVen conference room last Tuesday, Ms. Williams said her goal is to point out realities to people who may not be fully aware of them, and to give them a chance to do the right thing.
“I don’t think anyone wants to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m anti-woman,’ they don’t see themselves that way and you can’t treat them that way,” she said. “But you have to tell the truth. It’s important to be respectful of the things that have been accomplished but also to acknowledge what hasn’t been accomplished yet.”
Even she realizes she is taking on a lot, but she seems happy, incapable of idleness. “I need that pressure in my life,” she said. She carries with her a mind-set that tries to anticipate the next shot, the next point, the next set.
“I have always said that after sport, I wanted a life, I wanted an opportunity, I wanted to be able to do something,” she said. “And if something happens — the economy falls out or the dollar is worthless, anything could happen — you have to be ready to work. And I’m ready.”