Venus Williams was just a teen when she said it. She has spent the next 23 years proving it. "Everything's different about me. Just face the facts." Those words came before her powerful and athletic game led her to the No. 1 ranking in women's tennis. They came before she won seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles and five Olympic medals. They came before she demonstrated poise and grace and love as half of one of the greatest -- and certainly most complicated -- rivalries the sport has seen. Those words came before she shifted some of her attention and creativity to launching an interior design firm and a clothing line. They came before she fought the tennis establishment for equal prize money, before she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, before she became an aunt to Alexis Olympia, before she spoke out for racial justice after the death of George Floyd.
Venus Williams turns 40 today (she does not commemorate because of religious reasons), so we look back at some of the moments that have made up her legendary career and powerful legacy. Just remember: She told us she was different.
The origin story of the Williams sisters has been told and retold. Richard Williams, after watching a tennis match on television, was amazed at the amount of prize money awarded to the winner. He vowed to turn his daughters into champions. In his 2014 memoir, "Black and White: The Way I See It," Richard Williams writes about fighting gang members and wresting away control of the rundown courts near his home in Compton, California. "It had taken two years and almost destroyed my body and my spirit," Richard writes. "But in that moment, none of that mattered. What mattered was the courts were ours."
Venus Williams made her WTA debut at the Oakland Coliseum Arena on Oct. 31, 1994, when she was 14. In her first match at the Bank of the West Classic, she defeated 59th-ranked American Shaun Stafford in straight sets. "She's going to be great for women's tennis," Stafford said. That was win No. 1. Today, Venus has 811, sixth most among women in the Open era.
After playing in just a handful of tournaments from 1994 to 1996, Venus Williams made her Indian Wells debut in 1997. In the round of 16, Williams beat Iva Majoli of Croatia in three sets. It marked the first win over a top-10 player of her career. Later that year, Majoli would dive into a Williams-bashing trend on the tour. "She was a little bit cocky, like she was the best in the world," Majoli said.
The first top-tier win of Venus Williams' career came at the 1998 Lipton Championships with a three-set defeat of fellow teen Anna Kournikova in the final. "She didn't beat me; I lost," Kournikova said after the match. Venus had a more optimistic takeaway. "It's like the fifth-biggest tournament, so I'm pretty happy about that," Williams said. She has gone on to win 49 career titles.
In a second-round victory over Barbara Schett at Wimbledon in 1998, Venus Williams set the record for the fastest serve in women's tennis history. The speed? 125 mph. After the match, Venus was asked whether she could recall which serve it was. "No," she said. "I wasn't going for any big ones." Venus' powerful serve helped propel her to No. 5 in the world by July of 1998.
Venus Williams played little sister Serena in a professional match for the first time at the 1998 Australian Open. Fifteen months older than her sister, Venus won the match in straight sets. "Today would have been great fun if it were a final," Venus said. "But it wasn't so fun to eliminate my little sister in the second round." In all, the sisters have played 30 times (Serena has won 18), including 16 times in Grand Slams (Serena has won 11). Combined, they've been ranked No. 1 for 327 weeks and have won 30 Grand Slam singles titles and nearly $135 million in prize money.
When she hoisted the Venus Rosewater Dish in 2000, Venus Williams became the first African American woman to win Wimbledon since Althea Gibson in 1958. "It had to be hard because people were unable to see past color," Williams said. "Still, these days, it's hardly any different because you realize it's been only 40 years. How can you change years and centuries of being biased in 40 years?"
A year after successfully advocating for equal pay for women at Wimbledon (and winning her fourth title), Venus Williams beat Serena in the 2008 Wimbledon final to win her seventh, and most recent, Grand Slam title. "I think definitely winning this tournament so many times definitely puts you in the stratosphere, to be honest, just because of what this tournament means," Venus said.
Venus and Serena Williams also won the gold medal in women's doubles at the 2012 London Olympics at the All England Club. In all, Venus has won four golds (including one in singles in 2000) and a silver at the Olympics.
In 2016, Venus Williams returned to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001, when, shortly before her semifinal against Serena was scheduled to begin, she pulled out with an injury. The next day, with Venus in the stands, Serena played the final, and Richard Williams said he heard racial taunts from the crowd, prompting the subsequent 15-year absence from the tournament. "Just being here, just being on the practice court and on site has been so positive and such a great experience," she said in 2016. "It just shows that, yeah, you know, that you can always come back home, I guess. You can always go home."
In addition to tennis, Venus Williams has also been a bold presence in other industries. In 2002, she launched an interior design firm called V Starr Interiors. Her first client was former NBA star Carlos Boozer. In 2007, she launched EleVen, a line of fitness clothing and accessories. She has regularly worn her line's outfits, including at the 2017 French Open.
In 2017, Venus Williams returned to the Wimbledon final for the first time since 2009 and for the first time since her diagnosis of Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease. Williams was defeated by Garbine Muguruza. "I've been in a position this year to contend for big titles," said Williams, then 37. "It's just about getting over the line. I believe I can."
"I'm not bad at playing tennis," Venus Williams said in a news conference at the Miami Open in 2018, "so why not keep going?" That she did. In 2019, Williams became the only player age 39 or older in the WTA top 100.
In their most recent Grand Slam match, at the 2018 US Open, Venus Williams got just three games off her sister. The Williams sisters' rivalry is considered one of the best in the history of tennis. Serena has said this of her sister: "There's no way I would have anything without her. She's my inspiration. She's the only reason I'm standing here today and the only reason that the Williams sisters exist. So thank you, Venus, for inspiring me to be the best player I could be and inspiring me to work hard."
"I was just telling her thank you for everything she's done for the sport," Coco Gauff said after defeating Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2019. "She's been an inspiration for many people. I was just really telling her thank you. I met her before, but I didn't really have the guts to say anything."
As she approached her 40th birthday, Venus Williams was as visible off the court as on. Dancing at halftime with Rob Gronkowski and the Laker Girls, serving as a guest anchor on the "Today" show and starring on "Game On," Venus Williams has expanded her influence beyond the court. "If you're not a competitor, you've just got to go home," she said.