In 1968, Billie Jean King won the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon, but she only received £750 in prize money while the men’s singles champion won £2,000. From this moment on, King began advocating for all players to earn equal prize money at all the Grand Slam events, regardless of gender. Three out of these four major tournaments (the US Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open) agreed to this change, but Wimbledon continued to hold out, only slightly increasing the prize total for female players over the years but never making it equal to what the men were awarded.
Then in 1994, a young player from South Central Los Angeles went pro and changed the sport forever. Gone were the days of women’s tennis being mainly a serve and volley game. At 6’3″, Venus Williams ushered in a new generation of female power players who competed with an intensity and drive equal to the males. This shift began to electrify the women’s game, making it just as popular as the men’s (if not more so in some years), and negated the theory that female players drew in less viewers and had fewer fans than their male counterparts, an idea some had used to justify the difference in pay.
Venus Vs. shows the many different opponents and obstacles Williams faced throughout her career, but director Ava DuVernay focuses on the wins at Wimbledon and its imbalance of prize payouts, making this issue stand out as the constant thorn in the player’s side. As Williams’s star continued to rise and she won more championships, she realized she was moving into a position where she could use her power and influence for more than just winning matches. This dynamic documentary shows us how Williams also forced the walls to close in on Wimbledon.
Williams was not readily accepted into the world of professional tennis, and Venus Vs. certainly showcases the passionate player that many of us are familiar with, but it also presents the lesser-seen, more reserved part of the subject’s personality. DuVernay uses this more private side to show how Williams consistently stayed the course of King’s original goal, speaking out against Wimbledon without ever trashing the organization. What the athlete accomplished off the court is worth applauding, but seeing how she went about it is inspiring.
Williams may have started her career as an outsider, but as her fellow players and journalists note in the film, that “outside looking in” perspective may have been her biggest strength and made her the right player at the right time to help finally get Wimbledon to change its ways. While DuVernay keeps the focus on these insights and the facts, she also wisely fills Venus Vs. with nail-biting game footage that should captivate even non tennis fans and have audiences rooting for Williams from the start.
Venus Vs. tackles this hot button issue with a feeling of restraint that reflects how Williams herself approached the conflict, keeping the excitement on the court, resulting in a documentary that is both compelling and inspiring.
The Upside: Sharp narrative that should appeal to both tennis fans and general audiences; showcases equal sides of Williams as a player and an advocate for women’s rights; tight editing keeps the focus on the issue at hand.
The Downside: Specific subject matter may not appeal with viewers with no interest in the equal pay issue within professional tennis (or tennis itself); strangely not much mention of Venus’s sister and fellow pro tennis player, Serena Williams.
On the Side: Venus Vs. is a part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series on female athletes and will be premiere on the channel on July 2nd.