Venus Williams has the instinct to persevere

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Venus Williams celebrates after beating Johanna Konta in the semifinals.

It's not that Venus Williams is without limits; it is that she appoints herself to surpass them.

As she once explained, "I don't want to be pushed out of the game because of other reasons other than that I wanted to leave. When I'm ready to go, I'll go -- but at this moment I think I can still do it."

This strong self-assurance is, after all, how Williams was raised to play tennis. As a black woman from Compton, California, she has learned to push out other people's doubts about her place in a quintessential lily-white sport.

A lattice of social barricades braid the sport's history, and Williams routinely brushes against history's nets, often a target of racist heckling from fans, and sometimes a target of racism by members of the tennis establishment and even the media.

Off the tennis court, Williams has faced challenges too. In 2003, her sister was murdered less than two miles away from the public tennis courts in Compton that Venus and Serena grew up on. Eight years later, Williams was diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain and fatigue. The condition made basic activities like standing or light jogging painful, much less the training required of her as a professional athlete.

These challenges have loomed large over her professional prospects -- with some reporters even calling for her to hang it up.

But what others see as a wall, Williams sees as a target. This is not only her success -- it's her method. Williams can't control where history has drawn lines, both on and off the court, but she can determine how hard she rushes past them.

For Williams, other people's concerns about her selfhood are dim flickers on her horizon, not guiding beacons.

As she explained, "The first time you win, nobody picks you; the last time you win, nobody picks you. You've just got to pick yourself."

Perhaps her method of picking herself explains her long tenure in the sport. That expansive equanimity characterizes her attitude toward herself as well as tennis. Williams allows herself to stretch, unwinding the infinity of herself. Among her non-tennis activities: designing her own clothing line and pursuing a master's degree in interior architecture.

She enters the final with her instinctive sense of assurance.

These aren't simply instincts of the body -- they are instincts of the spirit. Over the two decades Williams has been playing professional tennis, she has learned to serve big, hit hard, move fast.

She also has the instinct to persevere. And with this instinct comes another that seems to have become Williams' nature: to prevail.

Eleni Schirmer is a doctoral student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's departments of educational policy studies and curriculum and instruction, where she studies social movements and education. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, The Progressive, Labor Notes and Education Review.

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