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What Serena & Venus Williams Have to Teach Us About Overcoming Adversity

The year is 1990. A father watches his two daughters pitted against one another upon a Compton public tennis court with determination and focus etched deeply on his face.

How unknowingly fortunate those passing by must have been, hearing that faint thwock…thwock…thwock of ball meeting racket echoing down Compton streets.

Were they able to see the telltale signs of the greatness being so diligently molded in these two young women? Venus and Serena Williams would soon proceed to create a far larger echo, one that will be heard and felt for decades to come.

The Birth of a Tennis Legend: Venus Williams

Venus Williams was born June 17, 1980, in Compton, California, to parents Richard Williams and Oracene Price. Her father quickly realized the athletic talent she had, and he fashioned himself into a self-made tennis expert to begin crafting a meticulous outline for sculpting champions out of his children. 

By the time Venus reached ten years old, her parents relocated to Florida so that she and her sister could begin training at a specialized tennis facility. Venus entered her pro career at only 14 years old in 1994. What would ensue would be a decades-long streak of accolades, firsts, and absolute domination! 

Venus Williams reached the final of her U.S Open in 1997, becoming one of the first women to ever do so, an accomplishment achieved only by Pam Shriver nearly 20 years prior in 1976. 

Only a year later in 1998, Venus secured her first Grand Slam victory at the Australian Open at the age of 18. In 2000, Venus went on to achieve victory at one of the most significant and lofty tennis tournaments on the planet, Wimbledon

Within that same year, she added to her ever-increasing list of titles and accomplishments by taking home two gold medals in the Summer Olympic games, winning the U.S open again, as well as partnering with Reebok in a $40 million dollar sponsorship deal. 

However, Venus’ highlight reel would soon have to reconcile with an unexpected blow.

A Thorn in the Heel of a Giant: Venus Williams’ Autoimmune Disease

For Venus Williams, the early signs of what would eventually prove to be a debilitating autoimmune disease reared its ugly head in 2004. 

Although boasting one of the most prestigious tennis careers of any woman to date, Venus began to experience unexpected health complications: dry eyes, dry mouth, joint fatigue, and muscle soreness.

She suffered in silence for seven years before actually arriving at a diagnosis.  

After searching for answers for years, Venus would eventually be diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that directly affected her ability to engage with tennis at a professional level, eventually leading to her withdrawing from the 2011 U.S. Open

This stumbling block would, however, prove to be ultimately ineffective, for what follows after this diagnosis is a tale steeped in both sweat and unwavering perseverance. 

Venus’ Triumph in Spite of Her Struggle 

Venus Williams leaped back into the fray during the 2012 season. Although initially handicapped by her immediate medical complications, as well as her lower ranking, the world watched in awe as she climbed her way back to a status worthy of a champion.

Climbing ever forward, she ascended from rank No. 134 to No. 24 by season’s end. 

Between 2013 and 2015, she would accomplish placement within the top 50 and then top 20 within the Women’s Tennis Association. Only a few years later in 2017, she would recapture her previous glory by securing two Grand Slams and cementing her position as No. 5 in the world. 

In an interview with Health, Venus attributed her ability to overcome this obstacle to a meticulous adhesion to an entirely plant-based diet:

It definitely changed my whole life. It changed the pace that I live at. It changed everything. There are definitely challenges, though, but it’s about how you face them and how you come on top so you can live in a way that is acceptable to you. So, it has been wonderful to still do what I love. And even though I still have issues, it doesn’t mean they’re going to stop me.” 

Between her hunger for securing a place among the highest level of athletes and her determination to overcome any obstacle in her path, Venus’ journey of conquest over Sjorgen’s Syndrome stands as a beacon of inspiration to us all.

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Serena Williams: Following in the Footsteps Of Greatness.

Venus’ story is truly remarkable, but we can’t finish this article without telling the story of her younger sister, Serena Williams. Serena was born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan, just a single year after her sister Venus. 

As with Venus, Serena also showed promising athletic skill at a young age, and it didn’t take Richard Williams long to enlist both of his daughters in a stringent tennis training regiment in the hopes of crafting champions. In Serena’s case, her journey to tennis greatness began at age three. 

Within two years of the inception of her professional career in 1995 and before even graduating high school, Serena found herself ranked No. 99 worldwide in tennis. Come 2002, Serena secured victory in the U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon, coming out on top in all three tournaments. 

However, Williams’ athletic achievements would soon be stymied by unexpected health complications and setbacks, all of which she would ultimately overcome.

Down But Not Out: Serena Williams’ Injury & Trials

In 2003, the coinciding of major knee surgery as well the murder of Yetunde Price, one of her older sisters, resulted in a slow decline in the star’s performance, ultimately landing her at a ranking of No. 139. However, she would not let these setbacks prevent her from achieving greatness.

Serena attributes her ability to rise above these complications to her spiritual upbringing and adhesion to her faith. 

In an interview, she’s quoted as stating, “I grew up with a Bible because of my mom and my family. And I think now, for me, I’m making it my own and really, really making it for myself. I think there comes a point in life where you have your spirituality with what you choose for yourself, and that’s basically what I’m doing, there’s so much practical advice you can get from the Bible that applies in our lives today. I really love learning about what the Bible promises and actually teaches.” 

Between her staunch faith and dedication to achieving excellence, Serena once again found herself among the world’s top rankings by 2009 after dominating both the Australian Open singles and also the Wimbledon Singles. But her struggle wasn’t over yet. 

In 2011, a sense of unease and uncertainty plagued the tennis world. 

Doctors discovered a significant blood clot in Serena’s lungs, leading to much speculation as to whether or not the young athlete would be able to continue her streak of athletic brilliance. After countless procedures and a small amount of time off, the champion would proceed to rise to the top and secure nine more grand slam victories between her return and 2017. 

When asked about overcoming hardships to achieve greatness in an interview after the 2013 French Open, Serena responded by saying, “It’s all about, for me, how you recover. I think I’ve always said a champion isn’t about how much they win, but it’s about how they recover from their downs, whether it’s an injury or whether it’s a loss.” 

Surely few would be able to emulate the same model of greatness when presented with such daunting obstacles in their personal lives. Gratitude and determination immediately come to mind when reflecting on the Williams sisters. The two serve unquestionably as a benchmark for what it means to rise above life’s hardships and cement a spot in history as two of the greatest of all time. 

Undoubtedly, the Williams sisters look directly in the face of adversity and stand as the embodiment of a “bring it on” mentality. How can you follow their example? 

Serena and Venus Williams’ Perseverance in Spite of Racism, Sexism, and Uncivil Wrongs

As a whole, tennis has historically been a predominately White-dominated sport, so it’s no question that the Williams sisters had a mountain of obstacles standing before them as they climbed their way through the ranks. 

Serena specifically has been incredibly outspoken about the racism and sexism that has vexed her career, namely centered around a specific incident surrounding her family’s presence at the 2001 Indian Wells tennis tournament. 

An onslaught of boos, racial slurs, controversy, and speculation surrounded the tournament, eventually resulting in an over a decade-long boycott of the tournament from both Williams sisters and by their own admission, lasting trauma. Serena herself was subjected to blatantly racist cartoons at the hands of Michael Knight, depicting her as a brutish and unhinged woman. 

Despite the criticisms and negative attention from media and public voices, both sisters held their heads high amidst adversity. Their proud vigor and outspokenness regarding their trials truly served to pave the way for People of Color to engage within the world of tennis. 

A Court of Trials and a Legacy of Greatness

It’s no secret — Venus and Serena Williams have unquestionably altered the landscape of not only the sport of tennis itself but also the future for women and Women of Color in the athletic sphere.

A number of mountains stood in their way upon the path to greatness, namely injury, prejudice, and burnout, but despite the odds stacked against them, the two have gone on to forever cement their place in sports history and arguably have become the face of women’s tennis forever. 

Ultimately, the Williams sisters serve as a model for all, young and old, that greatness is within grasp for every individual. No matter the challenges that stand in the way, all one has to accomplish is look within the mirror and say, “I can do this; nobody can stop me.” 

Be brave and follow the Williams sisters’ example of courage. If nothing could stop them, then nothing can stop you.

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