Exactly three of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentaries have centered on stories involving female athletes—the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in Unmatched, Marion Jones’ performance enhancing drug use in Press Pause, and Renée Richards’ gender transition and subsequent professional tennis career in the late 1970s. This is not a good track record for equality in sports documentary storytelling, especially considering the behind the camera talent has the same disparity. Nine For IX is a step in the right direction, documentaries on enlightening topics in women’s sports directed by female filmmakers. And just as 30 For 30 started off on a positive-yet-rocky foot with Peter Berg’s film about the Wayne Gretzky trade to the Los Angeles Kings, so does Nine For IX begin tentatively with Venus Vs.
This is the second documentary starring Venus Williams in some capacity this year, the first being the woefully self-serving fluff piece Venus And Serena. Slate’s excellent Hang Up And Listen podcast covered that documentary’s failings in detail back in May, but Venus Vs. doesn’t fall into the same category as a commercial parading as an insightful documentary (Beyonce made this same mistake with Life Is But A Dream). Venus Vs. doesn’t try to make the case that Williams is the greatest tennis player of all time, or that she’s an indelible icon never to be challenged. This is a simple thread plucked from the many storylines within Williams’ career: how she represented a sharp change in women’s tennis as a teenager, rose to prominence with her sister clipping at her heels, and became the unlikely successor to Billie Jean King campaigning for equal prize money at Wimbledon.
In the vacuum of the documentary—that is, in the career of Venus Williams and the world of women’s professional tennis—it’s a significant accomplishment in a fight that dragged on much longer than it should have. The U.S. Open made prize money equal in the 1970s. (Side note here: There are one or two touches in the documentary that try to pat America on the back for this “visionary” advancement, which is patently ridiculous, considering how meaningless that one event is in the grand scheme of gender pay inequality that continues to this day.)
Director Ava DuVernay makes her case through multitudinous talking head interviews with journalists, politicians, former tennis stars like Billie Jean King and John McEnroe—as well as a one-on-one interview with Venus herself. The larger narrative—that Venus started as a tennis outsider, allowing her the unique perspective to step outside the game and help make this monetary change—only clicks at the beginning and end of the documentary. What’s more prescient, and more logical, is that argument that not all athletes have the same kind of personality. They may all be driven and physically gifted, but they’re not all gregarious and highly sociable. Just because someone makes their living in the public sphere doesn’t mean they can’t seek privacy when they want, and Venus Williams’ life around other tennis players shows that.
But what she did off the court is actually more important. She picked up Billie Jean King’s mantle and unexpectedly led the charge to end prize purse inequality at Wimbledon. The documentary doesn’t exactly connect that dot to the dubious larger point—that campaigning publicly for pay equality in highly visible realms like professional sports can influence other women to challenge for equal pay for equal work—but it also doesn’t glorify Williams as some kind of women’s rights crusader who improved conditions for all women everywhere. She’s a complex woman, a fierce competitor and talented athlete who had the right personality to push for what should have happened decades ago.
Venus Vs. spends only oblique moments on the better argument—that Venus developed into the right personality to pursue prize equality at Wimbledon—and fails to contextualize that slow progress in a way that makes it dramatically meaningful. Yes, it is absolutely punitive that by the early 2000s, women received only slightly less money than men, a subtle message that they weren’t considered equals. (One of the best sequences in the documentary goes down the line disproving every last argument for paying men more money, and it’s both extremely convincing and painful to watch anyone defend the other side.) But Venus Vs. instead relies too heavily on Williams’ career trajectory from youth dominance to her string of Wimbledon titles and the “country club sport” cultural upheaval that her hair beads and court strength signaled.
It also bears noting that singling out this one story in Venus’ career requires a lot of cognitive dissonance to block out everything else. This isolation cuts out Serena Williams completely—she only appears in a few random shots, and is never heard—the rest of the Williams family, and comes at a time when female professional tennis players from around the world campaigning for equal prize money over $1 million in an England-based tournament highlights the elite nature of the case instead of linking it to other inequities elsewhere. Title IX is, after all, designed to provide equal opportunity in the United States, making this story even stranger as the debut episode.
The best argument the documentary makes is showing one rally—between Williams and Lindsay Davenport in 2005—that rivals the now-legendary Federer/Nadal final in 2010. The strength of that rally—minus Williams’ grunting, a playing quirk I’ve always found distracting no matter who does it—shows how compelling women’s tennis can be at its best, every bit as equal to the drama of the men’s tournament. And Larry Scott’s retelling of a closed-door meeting the day before the 2005 women’s final with Venus is the most emotional moment, as Venus chooses to come out of her shell at the exact right time on a small but significant stage and sets in motion the eventual changes that occurred two years later.
Venus Vs. is by no means a complete picture of an issue than runs far deeper than the prize money at the tournament that is the pinnacle of professional tennis. But 30 For 30 films aren’t Ken Burns documentaries. They’re meant to give little slices of sports stories that go underreported or fall through the cracks over time. And this is a perfectly adequate starting point for a series that has more intriguing entries scheduled over the summer.
- Larry Scott, now the commissioner of the Pac-12 conference, comes off as a very savvy businessman here, and considering all the work he’s done to grow the Pac-12 since becoming commissioner, the WTA was lucky to have him there as long as they did to help grow the game.
- Future docs this summer I’m looking forward to: the Robin Roberts-produced Pat Summitt episode (my vote for the greatest college basketball coach of all time, male or female), and Julie Foudy’s episode on the 1999 Women’s World Cup-winning team. But none of the nine look to be on par with The Two Escobars or June 17, 1994, which justified the entire series in back-to-back films.