Credit: KELYN SOONG

Rhajzon Rankins can’t remember the first time he met Venus Williams. He was about 5, he thinks. Or maybe 6 or 7. He knows it was when he still had long dreadlocks that dangled down his neck and when he wasn’t much bigger than the tennis racket he used. 

“She’s been around and playing me since I was really young,” he says. The two are now on a first name basis.

Williams is an international icon, an athlete who, along with her younger sister, Serena, continues to redefine what’s possible on the tennis court, and is not afraid to use her platform for change. She has regularly spoken out to demand pay equity for male and female athletes. ESPN The Magazine ranked Venus as the third biggest female name in sports on its 2018 World Fame 100 list, behind only Serena and fellow professional tennis player, Maria Sharapova.

But to the hundreds of D.C. children she’s met over the years, Venus is a reflection of them. She represents their past, their present, and their future.

“Most of us share the same story,” says Rankins, 15. “We all weren’t, like, privileged. We’re just out here trying to get better. … That’s why people say she’s just like us.”

Williams, 38, was born in Lynwood, California, near Compton, and now lives in south Florida. But she retains a close connection with the District. She used to play on local public courts during the summer as a child with Serena and their father, Richard Williams, according to local coaches, and still has family in the area. Her older half-sister, Isha Price, graduated from Howard University and earned a combined Master of Business Administration and Juris Doctor degree from Georgetown University. Venus’ niece, Justus Bobbitt, who also attended Howard, lives in Clinton.

In 2001, when the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center opened in Ward 8, Williams was there, along with Serena. The center’s founder, Cora Masters Barry, is close friends with Venus and Serena’s mother, Oracene Price. Williams has also been a regular member of the Washington Kastles over the years and is scheduled to play for the local World Team Tennis franchise on July 25 and 26 at George Washington University’s Smith Center. She is also expected to host a kids clinic.

(World Team Tennis chairman and Washington Kastles owner Mark D. Ein is the owner of Washington City Paper.)

“She loves to teach,” says Bobbitt, 24. “She loves kids. That’s one of the unique gifts she has. With everything that’s happening with the center and the fact that I’m here, and my aunt’s here, it’s just worked out.”

Barry, 73, speaks in reverent terms about Williams. When the center was near completion in 2001, Barry remembers Oracene asking her when the grand opening would be.

“When Venus and Serena are available to come,” Barry replied. “Not a day earlier or a day later.”

Venus Williams, center, at a Kastles kids clinic in 2011. Credit: KELYN SOONG

In 2015, the center underwent an $18 million renovation, which included construction of a 48,000-square-foot indoor arena named for the Williamses. Dozens of framed photos of both sisters line the hallways and sit inside trophy cases. Williams’ design firm V*Starr Interiors designed the space. The light switch inside Barry’s office features a black-and-white photo of Venus and Serena.

“I’ve known Venus since 1996—I love all of [her family],” Barry says, “but she has my heart because she’s so kind, so, so approachable, and so down to earth. And she’s so giving.”

George Henry roams the outdoor tennis courts in Southeast under the unforgiving sun on a recent summer afternoon. He moved to D.C. about a year ago to work at the center and is now the interim facility manager.

He shouts instructions to the dozen or so young campers on his court, all under the age of 12, feeling as if his career has come full circle. During a break, Henry, 55, pulls out his phone and logs into Facebook. He clicks on a photo from several decades ago of him, Richard Williams, Serena, and Venus. In 1994, he met Richard in Delray Park, Florida, and was hired to help coach the girls, he says. 

Henry is not surprised at what the Williams sisters have achieved. Serena, 36, has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, a record in the Open Era, and Venus has seven.

“I had never experienced that kind of work ethic and haven’t since,” he says. “I told [Richard], “It messed me up working with your daughters, my standards are so high.’ … I’ve worked with pro players who didn’t work as hard as they did when they were 12 years old.”

Inside the center, Celeste Adams is well known. She attends nearly every event and function the facility has to offer. She’s met Williams twice. A few years ago at charity event sponsored by the Kastles, she got to hit with and ask her idol questions. Last December, she attended a gala at the Southeast center and modeled Williams’ latest outfits from her clothing line, EleVen.

The majority of the children that the center serves are African-American. Venus’ impact as one of the few highly-ranked black professional tennis players in a heavily white sport is not lost on Adams, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Surrattsville High School in Prince George’s County. She is reminded of it whenever a young girl walks by a television and watches a Williams sister compete at a Grand Slam and says, “I want to be just like her.”

Williams “came from nothing in a town that’s not exactly too [different] from this one,” Adams says. “It shows me that anyone, especially African-Americans, if they have a goal, if they push themselves to pursue, then they can do it. … We’re all black kids in a small Southeast area where I think is kind of underrated. I don’t think people give us enough credit.”

There’s no substitute for this kind of influence, Barry says. Sure, the kids have other favorite tennis players. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and doubles specialists Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan on the men’s side, and Madison Keys on the women’s side are especially popular, but few professional players can relate to these kids the same way the Williams sisters can.

“They look like them, dress like them, came from same communities and that makes a difference when you look at someone who looks like you,” Barry says. “It’s different if you look different. It might seem like a pipe dream. But when you look at someone and they are a reflection of you, then it’s a reality.”

Inside a trophy case near the entrance of the tennis center are a few photos of Rankins. In one, he’s hitting a backhand as Williams roots him on. In another, the two are high-fiving. Rankins, a rising junior at School Without Walls, started playing tennis at 3 and has his sights set on attending college on a full tennis scholarship. He is a three-star player and the top-rated recruit from D.C. in his grade according to Tennisrecruiting.net.

A flood of positive memories go to his head whenever he walks by these photos near the entrance of the center, Rankins says. But he doesn’t have much time to reflect on the past. He needs to get going. Rankins, like Williams, has to prepare for the next tennis match. And the future starts now.