When historians look back at the Williams Sisters Era in women's tennis, the big picture will be clear: Serena was better -- maybe the greatest player of all time -- but Venus was really good too.
Venus will not care. She shows no jealously toward her younger sister's success. Perhaps, that is because Venus has had her own battles to fight, some with and some without Serena. And when the sisters retire -- if they ever do -- Venus' impact will be seen far beyond draw sheets.
When Venus and Serena meet Saturday at the Australian Open final -- their ninth Grand Slam final against each other, but first since 2009 -- Venus will be the player feeling more accomplished, regardless of who wins. She's the one who is not supposed to be there.
Venus' career is about more than winning matches. Serena has gained a reputation as being ultra-competitive. She strikes fear in her opponents and shows her emotion on the court. Venus seems to walk on feathers between the lines. She plays a quieter match and leaves the court with the same emotion she entered it with. In press conferences, she is thoughtful and genuine. She doesn't care for x's and o's or rating opponents. She wants to talk about larger issues: How to improve women's sports, how to inspire a younger generation, how to navigate around mental obstacles.
Consider Venus' inspiring statement after her semifinal victory:
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 26, 2017
— WTA (@WTA) January 26, 2017
That last part should stick with you: "Each person takes that responsibility differently." Venus' career has been about doing what she doesn't have to do. She could have just cashed checks and retired rich. But she took that responsibility and made it her own.
Fight For Equal Pay
Venus' career has gone on so long it is almost hard to believe she was the closer in attaining equal pay for women at the French Open and Wimbledon. In 2005, Williams took on a long-term fight popularized by Billie Jean King, meeting with officials in Paris and London to change the tournaments' purses. When both declined, Venus delivered her own op-ed in The New York Times at the start of Wimbledon in 2006.
"I believe that athletes – especially female athletes in the world's leading sport for women -- should serve as role models," she wrote. "The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was among a series of politicians to support Williams. A number of organizations, included UNESCO, joined suit. In February 2007, both Wimbledon and the French Open announced they had reorganized to provide equal pay for men and women. That July, Venus won her fourth Wimbledon and collected just as much as her male counterpart, Roger Federer.
Battle With Sjögren's Syndrome
In 2011, Venus' career was slipping. She entered the U.S. Open as the No. 36 player in the world and for the first time in her career, was on the verge of not making a grand slam quarterfinal in one season. After winning her first round match, Williams, suffering from fatigue, withdrew from the tournament. She then revealed that she had recently been diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects the moisture-producing glands of the body. Williams called off the rest of her season and dropped as low as No. 110 in the rankings.
Williams changed to a vegan diet and had to pick and choose her spots in terms of playing in tournaments. A back injury in 2013 caused further problems. From 2012-2014, Williams played in ten Grand Slams, never making it out of the third round.
At 34, there would have been no shame with Williams retiring after the 2014 season. She had accomplished more than most athletes -- male or female -- could ever imagine. She had made more than enough money. But Williams kept going. As she said Thursday, "It's either you do it or you don't."
Venus did it. In 2015, she made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, and she earned a spot back in the top ten. In fact, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, it was Serena who knocked Venus out. In 2016, Venus went all the way to the semifinals at Wimbledon.
Venus' success with Sjögren's syndrome is extraordinary. She can't practice the way she used to, she can't eat the way she used to and she can't sleep the way she used to.
"There's only so much you can do, so I've definitely had to adjust a lot but I just see it as a challenge because in my life I've never been defeated by anything," she told CNN in 2014. "I've lost and I've had to learn -- but I've never had to lay down the towel, so to speak."
She Went To School
Somehow, during her career, while winning grand slams and fighting Sjögren's syndrome, Wiliams managed to get two degrees. In 2007, she earned an associate degree in fashion design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.
Even more impressive, Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree from Indiana University East, taking online classes from 2011-2015. She became the first to graduate under an agreement between IU East and the Women's Tennis Benefits Association. The school is the primary provider for baccalaureate online degree completion programs for WTA players.
During the course of roughly 20 years in the spotlight, Venus Williams has been a star tennis player, but beyond that, she has been a social rights activist and a general inspiration to anyone who has followed her career. Somehow, in the midst of all of that, she got an education.
When Serena takes the court Saturday, she will attempt to set the record for most Grand Slam championships in the Open Era. But for Venus, this means something different. A win Saturday would validate so much of the work on and off the court that Venus has put in during the second half of her career.
After all, "This is why people live and die for sport, because you can't fake it."
You've been real, Venus. And you'll keep being real. We appreciate you for that.