What is the shelf life of a hero? Three years? Maybe five? After that, are thoughts of them to be discarded like an empty box of Wheaties? I’m not aware that Venus Williams has ever appeared on a Wheaties box, yet she recently won her 49th career title at the Taiwan Open. Although she fell to an early exit at Indian Wells, I hope this year (or the next) she can celebrate her 50th title win—preferably at Wimbledon. The irony of that venue should not escape us: eight years after winning her last Grand Slam.
My well-wishes are motivated, in part, by desire for vindication. Several years ago, a couple of my office colleagues were convinced that Venus had become passé—an anachronism eclipsed by her younger sister. That I proudly displayed a picture postcard from the U.S. Open—emblazoned with Ms. Williams’ image—invited snide remarks: It was taped on my office door. This was even though it was common practice at this firm to adorn offices with items of personal interest. Evidently, in this modern age of disposable items, heroes are also deemed disposable.
Irrespective of such criticism, I am not prepared to let Venus be retired to the archives. I’m not. And I wonder if the same dismissive comments would have been forthcoming—if I had a picture of Jack Nicklaus or Sugar Ray Leonard posted on my door. I doubt it. So I have taken it upon myself to be the defender of the tennis star’s legacy.
My admiration for this champion began in the late 1990s, just after her national debut. I had first discovered her during a male bonding session while watching television. There were snide comments back then, as well, but they were focused on her looks. Some in the room didn’t think she was sufficiently glamorous—a la some Donald Trump comment on women. However, we all were still excited to watch her play, even though most in that beachfront condo were rare spectators of the sport.
But that was then. And—I confess—I do tend to cling to the past: My first novel is inspired by my interest in ancient civilizations. Accordingly, I believe that the classical Greeks had it right when it came to hero worship. Millennia ago, they endowed their heroes with superhuman legends and passed those stories down to their sons and successive generations. Thus, after countless centuries, we still know of these mythic figures: icons such as Achilles, Heracles (Hercules) and Perseus. And our modern Venus has much in common with those demigods.
Over her remarkable career, this six-foot titan out of Compton has rattled her opponents with aces delivered like thunderbolts from mighty Zeus. That six-foot frame has flown back and forth across global courts of grass and clay with speed and grace evoking Hermes, the Olympian god equipped with winged sandals. And of her skill in identifying the weaknesses of her prey, I would liken her to Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt.
Now, all of the championships, all of the gold medals, all of the accolades of how she—and her equally-legendary sibling—have brought diversity to the sport, as well as hordes of new fans, all of that should entitle her to permanent admiration. Those accomplishments—alone—have earned her the status of a modern demigod. However, in anticipation of the coming of Wimbledon’s annual tournament, we always should be reminded of one Herculean deed performed by Venus off the court.
Like some blind goddess of justice, who could swing balance scales as easily as she would a racquet, Venus challenged the entrenched inequality accepted by the governing bodies of tennis. Yes, Lady Justice may be blind, but Venus saw injustice and would not remain silent. She articulated a manifesto of equal pay for equal work for all tennis players—regardless of gender. As a result, female players at Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis arena of them all, now receive prize money equal to that earned by males.
This June will mark ten years since she wrote that op-ed article, perhaps a gender-equality parallel to Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail—at least for the world of sports. However, sexist comments this year by the now former CEO of the Indian Wells tournament demonstrate that female athletes are still viewed as second-class citizens—even in the era of the Williams sisters. A Venus Williams is still very necessary to correct the unforced errors of the males who run professional tennis.
So, the ancients indeed had it right. The tales of heroes were to be treasured and passed on to posterity. However, where the ancient Greeks had it terribly wrong was their assumption that heroic virtues were exclusive to men. In that respect, we can be better than them. And so should our sons.
Venus has continued to enter the arena, although her vigor has been diminished by the disease she fights. Is that not heroic? The champions of the boxing ring, football field and, yes, the tennis court are now our modern demigods. But, if we blind ourselves to the potential of women to excel in the martial virtues we males so cherish, and which are embodied in modern sports, then we deprive ourselves of rich sources of inspiration. That is why, if I had a son, I would tell him this: “It is as manly and acceptable to hang a poster of Venus Williams on your bedroom door as it is to idolize Manny Pacquiao, Sugar Ray Leonard or Jack Nicklaus. The warrior spirit has no gender. Period. And, with all due homage to those three champions, Venus stands taller—literally.”
About the author: Geronimo Redstone is the pen name of the chairman of a national advocacy for workplace diversity. He is the author of the fantasy novel written as a condemnation of gender violence, The Bachelor Scrolls – Isis Unleashed. Follow @ManScrolls or www.geronimoredstone.com.