At 37 years old, Venus Williams didn’t look a day over 30 as she crushed the court at Wimbledon last month, advancing through the tournament and onto center court for the final. And while Williams didn’t end up taking home the winning trophy, had she, it would have been her sixth Wimbledon title—and she would have been the oldest female player to win. So what’s the secret to her long tennis career, which has continued despite her 2011 Sjögren’s syndrome diagnosis? How is one of the most recognized names in the game keeping her body—and mind—feeling so fresh and young? In an interview with Health at an event promoting her current partnership with American Express, Williams shared how she’s feeling as she steps under the lights at the U.S. Open this week.
What was it like to be back in a final at Wimbledon? Does it have you excited for the U.S. Open these next two weeks?
Yeah, of course! Being able to build on your results throughout the years helps you to not only grow, but also learn from wins and losses. So I feel like I can take that whole experience to the Open.
How is the sport different from when you started playing at age 14? Is it harder on your body?
Oh my gosh, not only has the sport changed, but I’ve changed as well. Even the courts have changed. It’s so much more competitive now. I love change though… it’s important.
What are your secrets to keeping your body feeling fresh and young?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a secret. I think I’ve paced myself in terms of training. Of course, I train more because I’m a professional athlete. But with the amount of tournaments and the amount of training and also knowing how to push your body—and trust me, I’ve pushed my body a lot. But you have to know when to say when, too. And also, it’s very draining mentally to keep this level up, so I also like to take mental breaks. Those are just like some of the tips that have worked for me. I would love to keep playing even more.
Do you take days off? And if you do, are you totally off or are you still staying active?
What is a day off? I don’t know. You know, this year I haven’t taken a lot of days off. But there is something to be said for letting the body recover, and especially letting the mind recover, and a lot of times you come back stronger.
What do you do for your mental breaks?
I believe tennis is meditation. You stand there in the zone and you’re hitting the same shots over and over, and over and over, so there is no better form of meditation that hitting serves, forehands, or backhands. But I like to dance. I spend a ton of my free time with my family, too, because I’m away a lot.
How much do you sleep? Does the amount change during tournaments?
In a tournament, yes, I sleep a lot more because I have to. You don’t want to just give away a match because you just couldn’t find a way to go to bed. I try to get at least eight hours. At home, I can stay up a lot more. But sleeping is important. If you want to go out there and train and push yourself to the limit, you have to be well rested. That gives me more energy. So it’s definitely a disciplined life, being an athlete. It’s all about discipline and getting the best out of your time.
Do you get massages?
I see massage as a part of my training, almost. You spend a lot of time on the table because what you’re doing is a little bit unnatural and you break stuff because you’re just meditating on your forehand over and over. So I see that as a part of work. You definitely wouldn’t see me using my free time going to a spa, because I’ve already been on the table for hours.
Are you hitting the gym at all?
I’m all about the gym life. It’s super important to prevent injury, but also to be strong. I live for abs.
As you’ve gotten older, has your gym regimen changed at all? Anything different from when you were, say, 20?
Not necessarily. I probably spend a little more time at the gym. I’ve always spent plenty of time at the gym. So not necessarily, but I do keep up with exercise and fitness.
Do you think the fact that you’ve been an athlete and trained hard and eaten well your whole life, do you think that your body is helping you out now as you age?
I hope so. I do. I think there’s a lot to say for that. You have to be good to yourself. If you don’t take care of your car, you’ll break it, it’s the same thing. But the body is somehow more resilient, which is unbelievable. The things we do or put in it, we still go.
Do you eat differently during tournaments? More protein and carbs? More fat?
I eat a ton more during a tournament. Lately, I’ve been off the protein train—even vegan protein. That’s something new I’m trying. I’m not necessarily convinced we need as much protein as they say. And I still feel good. I think it’s all about how you feel and finding out what works for your body.
So what do you turn to since you cut back on protein? What’s your go-to to replenish?
I do shakes and smoothies—they’re easy and quick. I love it. Different varieties, green ones, pink ones, red ones, all different colors with lots of fruits and veggies.
How do you keep your body looking, feeling, and performing great?
Always wear sunscreen, for the exterior. And for the interior, eat as many green things as possible.
It seems like social media is trying to promote self-love lately. Do you think it’s important to give yourself some reassurance every now and then?
Yeah, it’s not always easy to love yourself. There can be barriers, whether we built them ourselves or that we grew up with them—who knows. But at the end of the day, the same amount of time that you spend not loving yourself, you could. So sometimes I think you have to simplify things in your head and make it make sense.