Venus Williams is walking toward me -- with beautiful braids! Long braids intertwined with red and blue ribbon to commemorate her fourth Olympics as a competing athlete. Venus Williams is tall and regal! Six feet and one inch of graceful agility with big brown eyes and perfect teeth. Venus Williams is nice! Warm and welcoming as I begin to interview her at her estate in Palm Beach, Florida on a balmy summer day in 2012. I'll always remember this, the first time I met Venus Williams. It wasn't fancy. It wasn't glitzy. It was just like she is -- low-key and lovely. Yep, I remember it like it was yesterday.
Making a documentary on a little known part of her career -- focused on her activism and feminism around the issue of pay equality -- I feel like I know her. We all do. At least we think we do. The trailblazing, groundbreaker who catapulted onto the national scene at the tender age of 14. A disrupter of the best kind who made the establishment take notice -- often against their will. A girl from Compton who would become an international icon. But there is much more.
I admit that I'm not a huge sports fan in general. But when ESPN approached me to direct a documentary for their upcoming Nine for IX series focused on women's sports, I started to think about sports personalities or moments that meant something to me. As a fellow Comptonite, I've always had a special homegirl affection for Venus, always watching with interest, always cheering her on. I think many in my community felt connected to her in that way. Early on, she was clearly portrayed as an outsider within the sport - for her beads, for her style of play, for her demeanor, for her grunting, for whatever was out of the ordinary. And let's face it: she was anything but ordinary. Those outsider moments had a particular resonance with me. I felt a protective pride in this young woman. So when I learned of her quest for equal pay at Wimbledon, I saw a story of someone on the outside who became the ultimate insider. A woman once maligned and misunderstood who soared and succeeded to the point of being a savior for the wildly important cause of equal pay in tennis.
Until just 2007, male and female champions at Wimbledon were paid unequally. Venus, following in the footsteps of the great Bille Jean King, didn't like that - and worked to do something about it. Along with key executives at the Women's Tennis Association, she executed a multi-pronged strategy including private negotiations and public appeals to overturn the decades old practice of compensating women champions with less prize money than their male counterparts. My latest film for ESPN, VENUS VS, explores Venus' rise as an unlikely leader for this cause and the tactical efforts to equalize the Wimbledon prize. It's a remarkable story that has been untold until now. And I am thrilled that we got the chance to share this important part of her career. It's vital that we speak these truths and make sure they are heard.
When we are young girls growing up -- whether in Compton, London or Bangladesh -- we often see women around us doing things that we think are big, that we think are important. And some of us wonder if we'll ever have a chance to do something as significant in our own lives. Venus' story simply shows that standing up for ourselves in any instance - whether to our family, friends or the establishment, whether in the workplace or in our community - is a thing that can change our worlds. It doesn't have to be on the international stage. Anywhere will do. Venus Williams was a young girl who just wanted to play tennis and to be the best. That alone might have been enough. But when given the chance to fight for something even larger than herself, to stand up for what was right, to change minds - she had the courage and conviction to do just that. Definitely a story worth telling. Definitely a story worth remembering.
Venus Vs. premieres on July 2 at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN as part of ESPN Films' and espnW's Nine for IX series.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and ESPN, in conjuncture with the latter's 'Nine for IX' film series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX was a landmark legislative victory for justice that prohibited discrimination by gender in schools and sports. To see all the posts in the series, click here. To learn more about 'Nine for IX,' click here.
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