For the first time since 1996, Venus Williams isn’t playing tennis at Wimbledon. But her legacy at the All England Club lives on even in her absence, and not just because the elder Williams sister won five singles titles and five more in doubles at the sport’s marquee Grand Slam.
For the sixth consecutive year, the woman who wins the Wimbledon singles title Saturday afternoon will make the same amount of money as the man who wins Sunday, largely because Williams took up a fight for equal pay at Wimbledon that began with Billie Jean King in the 1960s but had lapsed, at least among players, by the time she won her first title there in 2003.
Williams’ efforts to secure equal pay at the All England Club are the subject of director Ava DuVernay’s Venus Vs., the first film in ESPN’s Nine For IX documentary series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the landmark American law that gave women equal access to sports and education. The documentary airs tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
There are any number of issues a film about Venus Williams could have approached, but DuVernay chose a story that both fits the celebratory theme of the Nine For IX series and breaks new ground. Williams was often outspoken about her desire for equal pay at Wimbledon, which, unlike the U.S. and Australian Opens, didn’t pay its men’s and women’s champions equally until 2007. But her advocacy was often a non-story in the United States, a void in coverage Venus Vs. successfully fills while also shining light on efforts that had previously existed only behind the scenes. It chronicles Williams’ attendance at a meeting of Grand Slam organizers the day before she played in the 2005 Wimbledon final, and it was at that meeting, which no player had ever attended, that she took Wimbledon and the French Open to task for their inequitable pay structures. A year later, she wrote a scathing editorial in the Times of London saying that Wimbledon had been “tarnished.” Finally, in 2007, Wimbledon and the French Open agreed to pay men and women equally.
Williams arrived on the tennis scene as an outsider, a tall, athletic black woman with beads in her hair who didn’t care to build relationships with her competitors. By the time she adopted the equal pay cause, she was on top of the tennis world, and given that the gap between men and women’s prizes was relatively small by that point, she was putting her reputation on the line for a principal more than for meaningful financial gain. Through interviews with Williams, tennis and cultural analysts like journalist Howard Bryant and players like King, John McEnroe, and Maria Sharapova, Venus Vs. deftly documents the transition both Williams and tennis made. Williams had won her way to acceptance, as her father once told her she would have to do. But in doing so, she also opened up herself, and that experience allowed her to take on the equal pay cause that had been waiting for a champion.
“It would be uninformed to do a story on her and her influence on the tour without acknowledging that at one point she was an outsider, and she was an outsider based on cultural politics,” DuVernay told ThinkProgress at a screening for the film Monday. “But she and the tour and her fellow players matured by having her and Serena on the scene, to the point that the one who was an outsider became the ultimate insider and the champion for this cause.”
The film leaves out Serena, save for a few shots of the younger Williams sister applauding from a box seat at Wimbledon, a refreshing change of pace that allows viewers to see Venus as her own woman instead of as part of a duo. Where it leaves the viewer wanting more is in its lack of interviews with other tennis legends, both male and female, though that isn’t the fault of its directors and writers. “Over 75 interview requests were turned down,” DuVernay said, including those filed with former players like Pete Sampras, a seven-time Wimbledon singles champion, and Steffi Graf, who won six Wimbledon singles titles of her own.
That absence speaks to the sensitivity that still exists around the issue. In 2012, men’s player Gilles Simon said he didn’t think women deserved equal pay, and his comments were greeted largely with silence by other male players. And while women now earn equal prize money at Wimbledon and the other three Grand Slams, there are still persistent pay gaps at smaller tournaments. They also exist outside of tennis, where Williams pushed the women’s tour to partner with UNESCO and other organizations to fight for women’s equal access to sports and compensation in the workplace.
The Nine For IX series came with a lot of promise — and a lot to live up to, considering ESPN’s success with its 30 for 30 documentaries — when it was announced last year. If Venus Vs. is any indication, the series, which emphasizes both female sports figures and female directors in a way 30 for 30 never has — won’t have any trouble living up to its potential.