‘Venus Vs.’ Kicks Off ESPN’s Nine For IX on July 2, Honoring Women in Sports

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Venus Williams is already a sports legend, regardless of the fact that she’s still an active player on the pro circuit.

Venus Vs., a documentary airing July 2 and directed by another formidable female in the public eye, award-winner Ava DuVernay, examines how Williams made an impact on professional tennis a la Billie Jean King, when she took on Wimbledon for dragging its tennies when it came to giving equal prize money to female pros.

“I didn’t plan on being the person,” Williams said modestly, when asked about the ESPN film. “It was just something I felt strongly about and I happen to be the one. I think it just turned into a role that I didn’t realize was going to happen.”

Williams, who grew up in Compton and has homes in Los Angeles and Palm Beach, FL, said she is proud to be featured in Venus Vs., the first of nine films to air in ESPN’s Nine for IX series, created in honor of the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

“I watched it with my Dad, I wanted him to be proud of me,” said Williams with a girlish laugh. “And he didn’t want to me back give the DVD.

“It brought back quite a lot of memories,” Williams added. “It made me appreciate people like Billie Jean King who really had spearheaded something unprecedented for women.”

Williams was among the most influential athletes in the world when she pressured Wimbledon officials to pony up with equal prize money for men and women, as other grand slam events had done. (The US Open has given equal prize money since 1973.)

By giving the men only slightly more money than the women each year, in many players’ minds Wimbledon was merely sending a message to all players that men were more important. As the film argues, the ticket prices were the same, both men and women were selling out the event, so there was no financial justification to pay women less.

After unsuccessfully making a case for equal treatment the year before in front of Wimbledon officials, Williams wrote an eloquent and powerful letter published in the London Times.

“I don’t think anybody expected it to be so poignant and so relevant, and for so many people to pay attention,” Williams recalls. “I think what made it so grabbing was how much it was.”

The British admit in the film that Venus Williams’ involvement nudged them to finally give equal prize money in 2007. Fittingly, Williams won Wimbledon that year.

Director Ava DuVernay, who also grew up in Los Angeles and, like many young females, was inspired by Williams’ success. She suggested Venus’ story when ESPN approached her after she won best director at Sundance Film Festival.  DuVernay was the first African American woman to win the top director prize, for her feature Middle of Nowhere.

“Venus was the perfect documentary subject in that she was hands-off and just left me alone, which is what you want when you’re documenting someone,” said DuVernay, also a well-respected publicist. “She really allowed us to find the story.”

Connor Schell of ESPN said that with the Nine for IX series, “We set out to tell really good stories, to tell important stories. Ava made an extraordinary film here, and documenting this journey of Venus’ and we’re proud of it. That’s what we’re looking to do. I hope it draws a big audience on Tuesday.”

Williams says she still looks up to Billie Jean King, who continues to be an influential supporter of tennis and fitness for men and women.

“I read all her books,” laughs Williams. “I love her enthusiasm, I think Billie … is one of a kind. You can’t really replicate Billie. I don’t think I’m really trying to be like her because I don’t think I could ever do that.  I do believe in being–and I’m not afraid to speak up the truth, so I think we have that in common.”

The schedule for Nine for IX on ESPNw: Venus Vs. July 2; Pat XO, the story of Coach Pat Summit July 9; “Let Them Wear Towels,” about breaking down barriers to the locker room, July 16; No Limits, the story of free diver Audrey Mestre July 23; Swoopes, a profile of basketball star Sheryl Swoopes July 30; The Diplomat, featuring Olympic skater Katarina Witt Aug. 6; Runner, about Olympian Mary Decker Aug. 13; The `99ers, featuring the US Women’s World Cup champs Aug. 20, and Branded, about double standards for women athletes Aug. 27.

For more information see http://espn.go.com/espnw/w-in-action/nine-for-ix/

The Diplomat, Venus Vs and all of the Nine for IX films are available on iTunes. The ESPN series spotlights women athletes and was executive produced by Robin Roberts and Jane Rosenthal. Get all nine films for $7.99 (standard def) or $9.99 HD, or individually at $4.99 apiece.


Journalist Laurie Schenden covers the entertainment industry, with many of her notable celebrity interviews appearing in the Los Angeles Times and other national and international publications. As a longtime columnist and feature writer for the LA Times, she also covered events and California destinations for the lifestyle, Outdoors and Travel sections. Laurie Schenden's international pieces include the long-running Where Are They Now celebrity feature for Spotlight Magazine, published in five languages. Laurie has also contributed to numerous documentary films, and produces content via Saving Grace Films.

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