The Williams sisters have built a legendary career carrying an "Us vs. the world" mentality on the tennis court. Their entry and rise not just to the top not just of the tennis world, but to the top of sports marketing and pop culture, was built on a belief instilled by their mercurial father and coach, Richard, that they could thrive in a game that was not designed to see high results from those who were raised in urban America. Both as individuals and as a team, Venus and Serena thrived on the credo and rearranged the furniture in a game that was once just for the elite, but is no more.
Even with all that success, the element of "me vs. the world" may rise again from time to time, and could be on display in the next few weeks. Venus, coming off a summer of inactivity due to injury, will be going to next week's US Open solo, as Serena continues to rehab from a freak accident suffered earlier this summer in Europe. It may not be as drastic or dramatic a version of circle the wagons and take on the world as has been in past years, but it will be a battle for another elusive Grand Slam title which, Venus will go at on her own.
However before the tennis tips off, Williams will have a different way to take on the world, albeit in a much more friendly and somewhat technologically advanced format.
Thursday, at the brand new Sportime facility on Randall's Island, Venus will host a virtual clinic for fans from around the world, compliments of US Open partner Polo Ralph Lauren. The virtual clinic may be the most innovative attention getter among the annual innovations rolled out by US Open partners this year. Brands big and small always try to find ways to outdo one another on the buzz meter as the event approaches, an element which expands the US Open footprint well beyond the walls of two weeks of tennis in Flushing Meadows. While many take to the streets of Manhattan and the other boroughs with grassroots activities, star studded parties and hours of exhibitions and promotions, Polo Ralph Lauren is going to the world, and taking Venus with them.
What will it be? Williams, in full newly designed outfits, will answer questions, provide comments on technique, and give real-time demonstrations for fans tuning in and logging on from around the world, all interactive and in real time. In a time where access to athletes is paramount for fans and essential for sponsorship activation, the virtual clinic will hopefully resonate very well with tennis fans around the globe and with Polo Ralph Lauren to both draw attention to the last Major of the year and help the brand justify the time and dollars it has invested in tennis.
Now maybe if the brand was looking for a larger immediate local return on it's spend it could have taken Williams to do clinics with young people around New York. It certainly would be noteworthy and would generate buzz. However by reaching larger, Polo Ralph Lauren sets itself apart from other US Open sponsors by showing that it is a strong retail brand locally but can also leverage internationally. It is a clear message and one that a global presence like Venus Williams can certainly help deliver.
So what will Venus vs. the world do for the tennis veteran on Thursday? It gives her a chance to showcase her wide array of interests (fashion and technology as well as tennis and working with young people) while giving a tennis partner a global boost and some worthwhile buzz.
In the end, all smart business moves for an elite athlete who has come a long way and for a brand that needs to set itself apart it a very loud brand marketplace.