Williams on the tennis court last month, wearing pieces from her EleVen tenniswear line

Venus Williams emerges long-legged and graceful from her car, decked out in a sleek slate-gray outfit from her tenniswear line, EleVen. She’s surprisingly feminine, considering she holds 21 Grand Slam titles and the record for the fastest serve in main-draw women’s tennis (128 mph). As she greets me, I see a wet nose sticking out of her camo tote bag. It’s Harry, a Havanese dog, her constant companion. “Harry has one job—to poop outside. And he executes that 85 percent of the time,” she says, deadpan. “He likes camo because he thinks he looks tough.”

Friend and personal assistant Jessica Baron greets us. (They’ve planned some casual hitting at The Bath Club later, then a meeting with Williams’s business partners at J&G Grill.) Inside Jamba Juice, there’s a nearly life-size promotional poster of Williams. (She’s a franchise owner.) She immediately starts dancing with her “self,” getting a laugh out of Baron. “Hey, it’s her,” whisper a few customers. She orders a smoothie of apples and various veggies, something that fits with a diet that has shifted drastically in the last year. “I’m a chea-gan now,” she says. “Meaning I’m a vegan but I cheat.” For most meals she is ardently vegan, with 50 percent of her diet being raw. The change was prompted by her August 2011 diagnosis with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes excess white blood cell production to clog moisture-producing glands, resulting in symptoms such as swollen hands, difficulty breathing, and extreme fatigue. Williams withdrew from the 2011 US Open seven months ago, after being so tired following a first-round victory that she could barely raise her serving arm. The 2012 Sony Ericsson Open is her first attempt at competition since.

Williams is feeling significantly better these days as she ramps up for the Sony Ericsson Open and maybe, just maybe, a shot at her third Olympic Games this summer. (She’s won three gold medals, more than any other female tennis player.) “I’ll be there if I have to die on the court,” she says quietly, without melodrama. We do a quick tour of The Bath Club space where Venus will host the relaunch of EleVen. Unlike some celebrities, she actually designs the line, and graduated cum laude with a degree in fashion design from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. Of her creative process she says, “The design starts out crazy, and then you scale it back. I’ll sketch eight on a page, and one might work. Sometimes I think, Oh, this doesn’t look like me. A lot of stuff ends up on the floor.”

She and Baron take the clay courts at The Bath Club. This week, she’s been working on “playing for points,” applying a strategy to each section of play. If you don’t get into this mind frame, “you start doing stupid stuff,” she says. After the sessions, she’s upbeat. “This is the best day I’ve had in a long time. But I could always be better.”

“How close are you to top form?” I ask.

“I’m at ‘positive’; always gotta think positive. But if I had to put a number on it, I’m at about a 70.”

Before we leave the clay, she greets a little girl who’d been watching her from the adjacent court, and we head to the exit. “I should’ve played that little girl for a confidence boost,” she says, still deadpan.

“That’s mean,” retorts Baron.

“I gotta do what I gotta do.”

We hop in the car for a little shopping. Harry jumps in back with me. “Harry likes to be close but not too close,” she says. “I can relate. I don’t like to be suffocated”—a reference to her current single status. We cruise by the W South Beach hotel and Mynt Lounge. “I wish we were going out,” says Williams. “It’s all going downhill after the Olympics.” We make a U-turn at the Shelborne South Beach. “That’s where I always karaoke,” she says, referring to Studio, the bar in the basement of the hotel. Williams specializes in classic rock and ’80s new wave. We pull into the Shore Club valet, and I can’t help but ogle a beautiful McLaren in front of us. “I know nothing about cars,” she says. “Is that the car from Back to the Future?”

“You mean the DeLorean?”

“Oops, did I just have a blonde moment?” she laughs.

In Scoop NYC, Williams’s eyes beam, and she makes a beeline for a pair of fuchsia Jimmy Choos.

“Love these,” she sings. “They are not my size.”

“No, they’re my size,” shoots Baron and snatches them away. After a quick breeze through the racks and a little examination of a striped Scoop blouse that echoes the bold colors and graphics of EleVen, it’s dinnertime.

We rendezvous with friend Davide Tomassoni, who works together with the company manufacturing EleVen (they’ve known each other for more than 10 years and were once rumored in the tabloids to be romantically linked), and friend Mike Letter, and wander in. “Who designed this place?” she wonders as we stroll through the almost Byzantine hall of mirrors, then guesses correctly, “Yabu Pushelberg?” We sit down to a quick meal. She relaxes as if hanging with college buddies— they’re all invited to the annual Williams family tennis tournament, where this year you must dress in ’80s garb. Venus is hush-hush about her outfit. “It got pretty competitive last year,” says Tomassoni, who’s only been able to score points on Venus if she plays lefty.

With truffled Fontina pizza on the table, Williams reverts to a little cheating and asks the quite tall Letter if he has a girlfriend.

“I got nothing… and I’m happy,” he says.

“Amen,” says Williams. “Harry is all I can handle.” The chat rolls on. Everyone is made fun of for one reason or another. Williams offers to help Letter’s friend out with vegan advice. Before long, dinner’s over. Williams announces that she needs to get back home to Palm Beach for her favorite television show, The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

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