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Locker Room Talk: A 1998 letter foretold Venus Williams’ amazing career

Her adviser/attorney Keven Davis spoke of perseverance, determination and learning the value of patience

The letter is still in my studio.

I never had it framed but have always kept it in a prominent position over the years as a reminder of perseverance, determination and the joy of watching flowers bloom.

This particular flower was Venus Williams.

The letter, dated Sept. 17, 1998, was written by Keven J. Davis, Venus’ attorney and adviser. Keven was responding to a column I’d written in The New York Times about his client’s tough two-set (6-4, 6-4) semifinal loss to Lindsay Davenport at that year’s US Open. Davenport, at age 22, had defeated Williams by relying on patience and allowing her 18-year-old opponent to make mistakes borne largely out of impatience.

Keven did not disagree. He wrote: “I agree with you that the difference between a Davenport and Venus is patience.” Then he added, prophetically: “As Venus matures, patience (and hopefully more titles) will come.”

Keven, Venus or I could not have predicted, indeed imagined, that over the intervening years Venus Williams and her younger sister, Serena, would put together one of the most extraordinary careers in tennis history. She would win the US Open two years later in 2000 and repeat as champion in 2001. Nearly 20 years later, Williams, now 37, continues to live an amazing tennis life. She has gone from student to master teacher, mentee to mentor and role model for two generations of players.

On Thursday night, Williams, playing in her 18th Open, faced young Sloane Stephens in a tough semifinal match at the US Open. Stephens prevailed, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, ending Williams’ remarkable season and perhaps ushering in a new era of young American female players.

Thursday marked the first time since 1981 that four women from the United States — Williams, Stephens, Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe — reached the Open semifinals. It’s neither fair nor reasonable, though, to expect any of them to carry the torch the way Venus and Serena have carried it for the past 17 years.

It’s one thing to win a big match here and there, even to have a good year. It’s something else to win season after season, living one’s personal and private life under a microscope, being a target for young players, match in, match out.

All of this and never losing love and passion for the game.

As Williams said — and as many of us have told rising young stars in our respective professions — patience is a virtue, passion is a must.

“You do have to have a love, because it’s a lot of work,” Williams said earlier this week. “Being a professional athlete is a lifestyle. It’s like, your life. Every decision you make is based on getting better out there. So there are sacrifices you make with your family, your loved ones, you know, just doing normal things like sitting on your own couch, that are taken for granted.”

Before the match, Stephens was asked about Williams’ importance.

“I think Venus is just our leader. I think as a whole, she’s just like what everyone looks up to,” Stephens said. “She’s a great player, a great person.”

Stephens was Williams’ teammate on the Fed Cup team and saw her firsthand. “There is not anything bad you can say about Venus. I’m just honored to be able to play at the same time as her. I’m happy she’s still playing. She means a lot to the game.”

Keven died in December 2011, way, way too young at age 54. The letter he wrote in 1998 has assumed different meanings over the years. That introductory letter was the beginning of a professional relationship and friendship — a prism through which I observed, at a distance, one of the great stories in American sports history.

Back then, I read the letter as a testimony to patience, perseverance, planning and dreaming big dreams.

I was with Venus at a Manhattan restaurant in 2000 when, at age 20, she signed a five-year, $40 million endorsement deal with Reebok. She said at the time: “My life is one dream coming true after another.”

Fast-forward to 2011, when Williams withdrew from the US Open after being diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease. The combination of the disease and the rise of Serena meant the end of her top-flight championship career at age 31.

Then, there was this season. With Serena pregnant and off the tour, Venus single-handedly has carried the torch for herself, her family and for women’s tennis in the United States.

Today, the meaning of Keven’s letter is one of mentorship — not so much passing the torch but teaching young players (or writers) to snatch the torch. After Thursday’s semifinal match, Stephens gave Williams a standing ovation and said it was an honor to share the court with her.

Williams, ever the competitor, was less than thrilled. “In the end, she ended up, you know, winning more points than I did,” Williams said. “That’s what it adds up to.”

Snatch the torch.

Our place as African-Americans of a certain age and rank is to mentor, to sponsor and to fight off those who would smother the ambitions of talented young African-Americans in any profession.

Keven Davis took a chance on a pair of preteen sisters from Compton, California, and helped them realize dreams and build a dynasty. The Williams sisters have in turn attracted generations of young players in the United States who have made women’s tennis vibrant and robust.

“The depth in the game is so much deeper now than it was at the time,” Williams said earlier this week, referring to the late 1990s. It’s become routine for Williams and her sister to be in tournaments facing talented 22-year-olds, some of them African-American, who grew up idolizing them and who now want to beat their socks off.

“I mean, now I’ll play players who I’ve never seen or know their name, and you can’t let up one point,” she said. “Players come out with a lot more confidence now. Every time I step out on the court, that person is coming for me. It doesn’t matter if I played for a year, not even if I’m ranked 100 or number whatever, they’re coming for me.”

Whenever I read Keven’s letter these days, I do so with the mindset of seeing the absolute need to mentor and sponsor talented young African-Americans — in tennis and beyond.

In 1998, he predicted that Venus would grow and mature. She did.

Month by month, year by year, season by season. Venus and Serena have led a renaissance in American women’s tennis.

The formula then is the formula now: Maturity and Patience. Time and Love.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.