Venus Williams, legendary tennis champion, entrepreneur, and New York Times bestselling author of Come to Win drew the Hamilton College community into her orbit on April 18 as the latest speaker in the Sacerdote Great Names series.

Venus WilliamsThe room was abuzz well before Williams greeted the audience with a friendly “How’s everybody?” on her way to the podium. Associate Professor of Africana Studies Nigel Westmaas, who has instructed the course Global Race and Sport for more than a decade, briefly welcomed Williams and then opened the floor for audience questions.

Several students were invested in Williams’ long legacy of advocacy in competitive sport. Sophie Thompson ’24 asked for the tennis star’s thoughts on pay disparity in women’s sports. The issue is on the minds of many basketball players like Thompson in the wake of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s draft on April 15. Speaking out as early as 1998 as an 18-year-old at Wimbledon, Williams has always been determined to realize the dream of equal pay started generations before her. To this end, she encouraged Thompson and fellow players, “Until it gets better, we’ve got to fight.”

Williams’ advocacy encompasses movements beyond the tennis court. Meg Lambert ’27, a member of the women’s rowing team, asked about the causes Williams is most proud of supporting. Williams related her love of wellness and the creative arts, especially interior design, which she explores through her South Florida-based design practice V Starr. The tennis star then flipped the script, inquiring about Lambert’s own passions. Lambert expressed her interest in poetry and using the arts as a means to promote spaces where people of color might not be present yet.

Eniman Abasi-Ifreke Imoke ’26 also brought up Williams’ forays into fashion. She praised Williams’ glittering gray dress on the red carpet at the Los Angeles premier of Challengers, a film set in the world of elite professional tennis. Williams, who received her associate’s degree in fashion design from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2007, humorously deflected the compliment, admitting that it hadn’t been her favorite outfit.

Others were curious about Williams’ trajectory to athletic fame. For Williams, since debuting professionally at age 14, family has defined her career. She emphasized her older sister Isha’s mentorship as well as her special relationship with her younger sister Serena Williams, who boasts her own award-winning tennis record. Ally Turtledove ’25, a member of Hamilton’s women’s tennis team, asked Williams about her role models. “I’m just like my mom. I’m so proud to be her,” Williams said, smiling. “Who are yours?” Turtledove didn’t hesitate in responding, “You,” in addition to thanking her parents and teammates.

Inspiration was a recurring topic, as various students sought advice on overcoming burnout and mental obstacles. “It’s hard to be perfect forever,” Williams said. “The greatest and the worst were all human.” She repeated her sister Serena’s advice about focusing on creating more opportunities rather than dwelling on missed chances. Williams highlighted the strength of her family, which is on full display in the 2021 biographical sports drama King Richard, and the importance of holding yourself to a high standard while allowing yourself grace. Grace for her, she confessed, involves a quiet night indulging in romantic comedies.

Williams’s identity informs her actions as much as her success and stoicism. Women’s Basketball Head Coach Mahogany Green admired the tennis star for her representation as a Black athlete. She reminisced on the lack of visible role models in her youth and thanked Williams for contributing to the breadth of role models available now to girls like her daughter, who accompanied her in the audience. “Thank you for the battle, for the fight,” Green said.

A sociology student in Global Race and Sport asked about Williams’ treatment as a Black superstar over the years. Williams reflected that the extra scrutiny and criticism, though undoubtedly present, never particularly fazed her; others were not so lucky. She stressed that all athletes should surround themselves with positivity and train themselves mentally. Ultimately, however, “It should just be about you and what you bring,” she reminded the audience.

Williams concluded by looking toward the future. Despite being diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome in 2011, the professional athlete hasn’t slowed her pace one bit. She recently announced her forthcoming health and wellness book Strive, which will empower readers to pursue personal wellness. Williams is also increasingly active in her business endeavors, which include the plant-based protein company Happy Viking and her design ventures V Starr and Palazzo.

Before preparing for her community-wide moderated chat that evening, the tennis icon took time to speak with individual students and take photos with select varsity teams. Those special moments only marked the start of her impact on the Hamilton community.

In the evening event before a full field house, Williams answered questions posed by Lauren Reynolds ’02, vice president, executive editor of ESPN Digital. Williams weighed in on topics ranging from the serious: “trusting oneself,” to the hilarious: “what songs to NOT sing at karaoke (“Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”). The delighted crowd listened with rapt attention and roared with laughter at Williams’ reminiscences.

“Venus Williams exemplifies how sports serves as a microcosm of broader societal issues offering a powerful example of the impact of individual agency in challenging and reshaping societal norms,” Professor Westmaas concluded. “Listening to her insights provided students with a direct ‘real-world’ application of the theoretical concepts we cover…making the abstract more tangible and concrete in the presence of a superstar.”

Great Names

The Sacerdote Series is named in recognition of a significant gift from the family of Alex Sacerdote, a 1994 Hamilton graduate. Other speakers in the series have included Tina Fey, Aretha Franklin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Derek Jeter, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Jon Stewart, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lady Margaret Thatcher, Susan Rice, F.W. deKlerk, and David Cameron.

Venus Williams

Legendary tennis champion


Tina Fey

Emmy award-winning writer, actress, and producer


Condoleezza Rice and Susan Rice

Former national security advisors


Neil deGrasse Tyson

American astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium


David Cameron

Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2010-16)


Derek Jeter

Former New York Yankees captain and five-time World Series champion


Hillary Rodham Clinton

Former Secretary of State


Condoleezza Rice

Former Secretary of State


Jon Stewart

Emmy and Peabody Award-winning Comedy Central comedian


Aretha Franklin

Recording Artist and Multiple Grammy Award Winner


Al Gore

45th Vice President of the United States


Tom Brokaw

Broadcast Journalist, Anchor and Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News


Bill Clinton

42nd President of the United States


Madeleine Albright

Secretary of State


Jimmy Carter

39th President of the United States


Desmond Tutu

Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa


Margaret Thatcher

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom


B.B. King

Blues Guitarist, Singer and Songwriter


F.W. de Klerk

President of South Africa


Elie Wiesel

Holocaust Survivor, Author and Peace Advocate


James Carville & Mary Matalin

Senior Political Advisor to President Bill Clinton; Deputy Campaign Manager for President George Bush


Colin Powell

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 65th Secretary of State of the United States


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