By Jackie Finn
Summer is right around the corner, and for tennis fans, that means the start of the Emirates Airlines US Open Series. The Series, a five-week coast to coast summer tennis bonanza, brings tennis’ grandest stars to North America as a dazzling lead-up to the final Grand Slam of the year, the US Open.
The 2016 Series kicks off in Stanford, Calif., with the Bank of the West Classic. This year, the California tournament is headlined by seven-time Grand Slam Champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist Venus Williams.
Williams returns to Stanford for the 13th time and is looking to win her third Bank of the West Classic title. Prior to her trip out west, the world No. 9 took part in a conference with reporters to discuss the importance of the Series, the rising prominence of American women on the WTA tour and how Wonder Woman impacts her Olympic plans.
What is your favorite part of playing on the North American hard courts in the summer?
Venus Williams: It’s great to play at home in front of the home crowd. That's the highlight. Being at home, being able to just play in the U.S., and there's not as many opportunities as there was when I first started to play in the U.S., it's become really special at this point. It really becomes the last opportunity to do so until March. I really cherish that. I love hard courts. A lot of people think my favorite surface is grass, but actually I grew up on hard courts, so I prefer that. I feel right at home on it.
How important it is for you to have the Series as a preparation for the US Open?
Williams: Coming in, of course, you want to come in strong, playing a lot of matches, hopefully winning titles. It gives you confidence going into such a big event as the US Open. But even if you don't win, you're able to hone your game, work through mistakes or chinks in your armor. Unfortunately, as much as you train, there's always something to work on. It gives you the opportunity to figure out, “What do I need to perfect at this moment in time?”
Is there any sort of additional challenge when it comes to figuring out the right way to schedule your summer during an Olympic year? (There will be a one-week break in the Series to accommodate this year’s Olympics.)
Williams: There are absolutely additional challenges, because the Olympics are such a highlight, but at the same time it's important to play tournaments so you can continue with success on the tour. Also, for me it's making sure I have a little bit of a break. This year I've been very successful. I will be starting out with Bank of the West, and then playing one more event, then heading off to Rio. That is my plan.
You and Serena will be leading the American charge at the Olympics and Wimbledon, but there are a lot of promising young American players who are coming up and playing well on grass. Are you encouraged that there might be some young players, such as CoCo Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, who can follow in your steps as a great Wimbledon player?
Williams: Absolutely! The surface at Wimbledon has changed a lot since I first started. It's a lot more forgiving, so it gives a lot of players more opportunity to be able to adjust quicker to the grass. Hopefully we'll be able to see that with the young Americans. But they've been playing really well, especially this year. That's great news for obviously the Olympic team and Fed Cup and all of the above. It's pretty exciting prospects.
On a side note, what about your dress for Rio. Besides needing the red, white and blue, what else inspired you?
Williams: Well, the dress, my dress at the Olympics is always inspired by Wonder Woman. Each and every Olympics its Wonder Woman as the inspiration. It never changes. I'll probably do a special Olympic hair this year though. Maybe I'll come back with colored hair. I haven't done that in a while.