NEW YORK -- Fifteen U.S. Opens ago, at age 17, she spoke of hair beads and Algebra 2, of her dismay at losing some of the former on court and her preference for geometry over the latter in school. She charmed and chirped but threw in episodic snideness, as when somebody asked Venus Williams what happened in the final and she replied: "I went out there. Lost first set 6-0. Second set 6-4. Then awards ceremony."
Fourteen Wimbledons ago, at 18, she harangued a chair umpire, blubbered in her chair after haranguing the chair umpire and lectured us on the virtues of haranguing chair umpires. "I think the crowd probably enjoyed my emotional outbursts," she said. "I guess someone would turn the channel and suddenly see some girl screaming and keep it there, because I know I would. It probably brightened up someone's day."
Thirteen U.S. Opens ago at 19, she clapped so despondently in the stands upon her younger sister's maiden Grand Slam title that some wondered if Serena Williams' breakthrough Williams title might wreak friction. "No, I don't think so," Serena answered. "We really believe in family, in the family. I just don't see where it can affect her. Tennis is a game; it's not your life."
Here we are clear on up to 2012, and it's hard to believe that those stories even feature Venus Williams. It had to be some other person. You almost have to go look it up just to make sure. It's not that she revamped herself with some sudden, annoying and announced transformation. It's that she pretty much has left a fine trail of grace across the years. It's an opaque grace, not a gregarious grace, but a serene, formidable, eye-of-storm grace.
In her second-round, two-tiebreaker loss to Karolina Sprem of Croatia at Wimbledon in 2004, the chair umpire botched the score. You could watch tennis matches until your skin fried off and still not see a chair umpire botch a score. The umpire gave Sprem an unearned point, the All England Club gave the umpire the rest of the tournament off, and you could imagine the amount of preening and caterwauling that many a victim might have produced.
Not only did Venus fail to notice the injustice, but she said placidly: "I'd like to think he didn't do it on purpose. I don't think one call makes a match."
In a third-round, dispiriting loss to Flavia Pennetta of Italy at the French Open in 2008, the match trickled into the Parisian darkness before ending clunkily at 9:48 p.m. At 9:30 p.m., officials adjourned a nearby match until the next day, but Williams and Pennetta played on, absurdly, Pennetta's groundstrokes hitting a lot of lines. We think.
Beyond the gloaming it grew clear what had happened. Somebody in the offices had opened the red wine and the various officials, relishing the end of another grueling day at Roland Garros, simply left two seeded players out there slamming the ball around to the guesswork of the line judges. Had it gone to a third set and a second bottle, it really could have grown farcical.
A good many might have bemoaned to the chair or the media the nature of this 7-5, 6-3 defeat, maybe while throwing in the half-meant bit about it's-the-same-for-both-players. Williams said placidly: "It was dark, but that wasn't really what I was focused on. If I did stop, I would have wanted it at five-all, and that probably would have been a good time, a fair time for both of us."
Beyond that, she has made her dignified push through the years, tranquil even upon winning Wimbledon in 2007 and 2008. And beyond that, time and again and again she has watched her sister win from the stands, envy defeated, despondency departed, with nobody utilizing a brain questioning the sincerity of her support. She has seven Grand Slam titles, Serena 14, the reality entrenched, the aplomb aplenty. In part it's a feat of parenting.
Before playing her sister in the Wimbledon final of 2009, Venus said: "I don't necessarily want her to lose, but for sure I want me to win. Maybe that doesn't make sense. But when I'm playing someone else, for sure, I want them to lose. But I don't even want to see her disappointed in any way."
By Tuesday, a smart, formidable, curious, entire 32-year-old woman turned up behind the microphone in the U.S. Open interview room. She had won a first-round U.S. Open match, not a given. She had worn a well-received floral print of her own design that even Kate (Middleton) might have appreciated. And she had grasped for a year her Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that makes unpredictable attacks on the energy reservoir.
She said life "never happens the way you want it to," so when you "don't make it to one goal, just make some more."
She said: "I just think after time, you still have the same symptoms over and over and over and over again. After a while you start to realize, OK, I'm not making this up; it's real. It becomes acceptance. You know, it's something you're thinking maybe tomorrow you're waking up and it's gone. It's not how it works. It just takes a while."
And she said: "Honestly, I didn't even understand what I was going through at this time last year. I feel like just this summer I've come to acceptance. Like it takes a long time to come to acceptance, especially when you're an athlete. You see yourself as this healthy person that nothing can defeat you. So it takes a while before you can kind of see yourself as someone with flaws and chips in the armor.
"Now that I have come to accept it, it helps me a lot in how I need to prepare for my matches, the mindset that I need coming into it. It's not as intimidating. I definitely was intimidated in a lot of matches this year, learning to come back and play with this. So I've come a long way mentally, emotionally, physically as well. I'm sure this is just the beginning of learning."
How did the girl with the hair beads and the Algebra 2 and the riveting outbursts grow up?
About as well as it can be done.