Venus Williams Overcomes Setbacks to Play in U.S. Open

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Forget any rumors you've heard of Venus Williams slowing down. Despite suffering several injuries and a scary health diagnosis, the tennis champ is as busy as ever, on and off the court. In addition to her vigorous training schedule, Williams juggles multiple side projects, including designing a fitness fashion line, winning equal pay for female tennis players, and juicing. We spoke with the star athlete about her many passions and preparing for the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, August 26.

SHAPE: This will be your fifteenth appearance at the U.S. Open. What are you looking forward to most?
Venus Williams (VW): I’m expecting stiff competition and very enthusiastic crowds, and more than anything I’m expecting myself to play well. The atmosphere is just like New York City—it’s unlike any other tournament.

SHAPE: Earlier this year, you withdrew from Wimbledon with a back injury. How has your training been affected?
VW: I had to work really hard to recover, probably harder than if I had actually played at Wimbledon. With hard work comes results, and now I’m getting to play the Open so I’m really pleased about that. I went through lots of physical therapy. My last couple of tournaments I was nervous it would affect my play, and it did, but now I’m fine and ready to go.

SHAPE: What kind of cross-training do you do between tournaments?
VW: If you name the exercise, I’ve done it. Running, jumping, sprinting, biking, swimming— everything. I try to keep it fresh. Most of all, I enjoy really fast, energetic workouts. I don’t like slow workouts, so just running is boring to me. It drives me nuts!

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SHAPE: Two years ago you were diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome. How has that affected your outlook?
VW: I’ve had to make a lot of adjustments and I’m definitely still adjusting, but with every year that passes I’m getting better. I’ve had to accept more limitations but also learn how to work with it. It’s a process.

SHAPE: You’ve adopted a vegan diet to reduce symptoms such as fatigue and inflammation. Was that a tough adjustment?
VW: I eat mostly vegan, and it was tough because previously I would eat a lot of meat—I’m really not a carb person. I ate vegetables too, but usually I’d eat my meat first then salad second. So the change was definitely a lot of adjustment, but I’m okay with it.

SHAPE: You’re on the road a lot. What do you eat you’re on the go?
VW: I recently opened a Jamba Juice franchise, and I love their smoothies. I could live on juices and smoothies alone. I also love wheatgrass shots. Wheatgreass does so much for you: It cleanses, rejuvenates, helps prevent disease, alkalinizes, and oxygenates the body. It is really magical, but it doesn’t have such a magical taste. I like to combine it with orange juice or ginger.

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SHAPE: You’ve been a major voice in the argument for equal prize money for men and women tennis players since 2005. Why is this issue so important to you?
VW: Women first won equal prize money at the Majors in 2007, so this is our sixth year with equal pay. It’s exciting to have that now for all women who enter the tournaments. But it's been a process to achieve this. This year is the 40th anniversary of women’s tennis in the Open Era, so out of the 40 years, only these past six have women won equal prize money at the Majors. It's been a long time coming.

SHAPE: Can you tell us more about the ESPN Nine for IX film, Venus Vs., which premiered in July?
VW: It tells the story of fighting for equal prize money and how it was achieved in the past few years. I wasn’t expecting anyone to want to do a story about it, but it’s nice that they did.

SHAPE: You also have a passion for fashion. and founded a clothing line, EleVen. Tell us more about your designs.
VW: EleVen stands for being better than 10. It’s about bringing your best every single time. We do a lot of prints, so you can mix and match pieces, and they’re all really fun to wear. We're also working on raising awareness about health and wellness, and we're going to launch a new website called Fitness Journeys in a couple weeks. Our goal is to help people stay fit throughout their lifetime and achieve their fitness goals by exercising and also eating right. 

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SHAPE: You’ve been known to sport some relatively racy looks on the court. How do you feel about all the attention your outfits receive in the press?
VW: They’re fun! And if people like them, that’s what matters. If I’m pushing the limit, that’s great.

SHAPE: What accomplishment would you say you are you most proud of?
VW: Probably being a role model for my younger sister, Serena. She does everything I do, still to this day. If I went crazy, she’d go crazy too. I hope I’ll still be a role model to her when we’re in our 70s!

SHAPE: What message would you most like to pass on to younger girls who look up to you?
VW: Just to be confident. Sometimes in life you’re going to face barriers and negativity, but stay positive and always believe in yourself. Never count yourself out.

For more from Williams, check out her website or follow her on Twitter. And tune in next week to watch her compete in the U.S. Open!

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