In the mid-2000s she was instrumental in convincing the governing bodies of Wimbledon and the French Open to award men and women equal prize money
This month Venus Williams finds herself on unfamiliar ground—that is, not on the well-manicured grass of the All England Club outside of London, competing in what would have been her 23rd career Wimbledon.
Canceled for the first time since World War II because of the coronavirus pandemic, the storied tournament is where Williams, 40, became bona fide tennis royalty.
“When the season starts, I will be ready,” Williams wrote to her fans on Twitter in late March. “Can’t wait. Can you?”
Williams, who turned pro in 1994 at only 14, made her Wimbledon debut in 1997, and in 2000 she won her first singles crown, defeating fellow American Lindsay Davenport.
Four singles titles, six doubles championships with her sister Serena Williams and an Olympic gold medal later, Williams says it’s challenging to pick a favorite memory from Centre Court.
“The first time was an overwhelming experience, and obviously super special for me,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The 2012 Olympics stand out as of one of the most interesting experiences of my career, but all those doubles wins are so special to Serena and me.”
The victory that she calls her proudest professional accomplishment, however, did not take place on a court. In the mid-2000s she was instrumental in convincing the governing bodies of Wimbledon and the French Open to award men and women equal prize money.
“That was something we had been working on since the 1960s,” says Williams. “It was long overdue.”
Recently, Williams has been using this same can-do attitude to condemn police brutality and promote racial equality. On June 8, she posted a heartfelt message on Instagram. “Just as sexism is not only a ‘women’s issue,’” she wrote in a call for unity, “racism is not only a ‘black issue.’”
“We need to make sure lives are saved and preserved—to me, that’s number one,” Williams tells PEOPLE. “We change that by recognizing and giving a voice to what’s happening in our world. We also need to address other invisible faces of racism, from how we hire to whom we cast on television shows.”
For her part, Williams has been using her recurring Instagram Live #CoachVenus workouts as fundraisers for the Equal Justice Initiative, matching all donations to the nonprofit, whose goal is to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment, challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights.
“I’m passionate about creating opportunities for Black youth at a grassroots level, especially with tennis and education,” explains Williams, who learned the game from her father, Richard, on public courts near her childhood home in Compton, California. “It’s important for me to help give minorities, disadvantaged youth and Black children the opportunity to play sports and have an education—just as I was given those opportunities. In turn, that gives them the opportunity to be excellent.”
Williams credits her mother, Oracene Price, with inspiring her on and off the court.
“Throughout my career, my mom has challenged me to pursue my creative side,” says Williams. “Her support and encouragement is what led me to realize my love for fashion and design and to get degrees in those fields.”
Despite a shifting tournament schedule, Williams has plenty to keep her busy, between V Starr Interiors, the design company she founded in 2002, and EleVen by Venus Williams, her lifestyle brand that recently introduced an eco-conscious skincare line in partnership with cosmetics brand Credo.
“I’m incredibly fortunate to have someone like her in my life who pushes me to be better than my best self,” says Williams. “That’s the meaning behind EleVen—always working to be an 11 out of 10.”