“Venus Vs.,” which premieres Tuesday on ESPN, is a new documentary film that follows the career of tennis star Venus Williams and her part in the fight to make the prize money in women’s tennis equal to that of men’s. There is a special focus on Wimbledon, the last of the four Grand Slam tournaments to eliminate the disparity.
Directed by Ava DuVernay (“Middle of Nowhere”), who, like Williams, grew up in Compton, it is the first in a series of ESPN documentaries on women’s sports gathered together under the title “Nine for IX,” to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX. The 1972 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which expressly banned sexual discrimination in any institutions receiving federal funding, revolutionized women’s athletics programs and the whole face of sports.
The story begins with Billie Jean King, whose 1968 Wimbledon win (at the dawn of the Open Era, which brought professional players and prize money to the Grand Slam) earned her a little more than a third of what men’s champion Rod Laver took home. King was not shy about criticizing the practice, and while the U.S. Open equalized prize money in 1973, Wimbledon and the French and Australian Opens were slow, very slow, to follow.
DuVernay opens her film with extra-close slow-motion clips of Williams under a chorus of male voices who declare their version of the sport “more interesting” and that female players are “not total athletes in the way that men are,” that they’re “greedy” for wanting to be awarded as much money as their male counterparts.
DuVernay introduces her twin subjects at a fast, efficient clip, laying out the history and arguments and making hash of the official “explanation” that women were paid less because they played fewer sets in a match and brought in less at the gate — since it was not the players who decided how many sets they would play, or set ticket prices.
As a straight-up, or even a sidelong biography of Williams, it does leave you wanting more. If you were not paying attention, you might miss the fact that Venus has a sister named Serena, who also plays tennis (she was knocked out of Wimbledon on Monday in an upset match), sometimes with and sometimes against.
Still, the main points are clear enough: Williams was something new and different in tennis — not the first black female player by any means (she recalls her own youthful admiration for Zina Garrison, a three-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion and a 1988 Olympic gold medalist), but with her beaded hair, beauty, height and power the first “showstopper” — an outsider and a winner.
Elegantly forceful, forcefully elegant, soft-spoken but well-spoken, she combined personal presence and athletic success in a way that made her a natural advocate for equal pay. When Women’s Tennis Assn. chief Larry Scott, who made that fight a mission, brought her into a meeting of Grand Slam officials — unusual enough in itself — she asked them to close their eyes and picture a little girl much like her own younger self. An op-ed piece in the London Times led to a motion in Parliament, eliciting a statement of support from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.
That she herself was the first woman to win at Wimbledon under the new policy, in 2007, is a nice bit of poetic justice. And not a spoiler.
DuVernay indulges in some eccentric framing and focusing choices for her interviews (including King, John McEnroe, Maria Sharapova and officials, journalists, scholars and politicians), blurring backgrounds or placing the speaker in the corner of the frame; Williams, however, she shoots straight on and close up, before a kind of circular window whose frame makes a sort of halo behind her head — an iconic figure almost in the religious sense.
‘Nine for IX’
Where: ESPN and ESPN2
When: Tuesday 5 p.m. ESPN; 7 p.m. ESPN2
Rating: Not rated