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40 greatest female athletes: Venus Williams

5/28/2012
Venus Williams was the first black woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world in the Open era, a position she has held at three different points in her career. Alan Grieves/US Presswire

ESPN is marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX by unveiling the top 40 female athletes of the past 40 years.

Tennis star Venus Williams was 14 when she turned pro. At 17, she reached her first U.S. Open final. Now 31, Williams has collected 43 WTA Tour titles, including 21 Grand Slam titles (seven in singles, 12 in doubles, two in mixed doubles), and three Olympic gold medals (one in singles, two in doubles). She is No. 21 in ESPN's countdown.

But more than anything, along with her sister Serena, Venus revolutionized the game. Women's tennis is collectively bigger, stronger and faster now because players have had to change the way they train to keep pace with the Williams sisters.

"When I was young, I had a poster of Venus on my bedroom wall," says 19-year-old Sloane Stephens, who is also African-American, and currently ranked No. 79 in the WTA standings. "I looked at that poster every day and dreamed of being just like her. She is a great role model, a strong businesswoman and a champion of women in all sports."

Read the complete story from espnW here.

Earlier in this series:

No. 40: Diver Fu Mingxia

No. 39: Jockey Julie Krone

No. 38: Gymnast Mary Lou Retton

No. 37: Hockey player Cammi Granato

No. 36: Soccer player Kristine Lilly

No. 35: Basketball player Diana Taurasi

No 34: Volleyball player Flo Hyman

No. 33: Soccer player Abby Wambach

No. 32: Swimmer Mary T. Meagher

No. 31: Marathoner Joan Benoit

No. 30: Sprinter Gail Devers

No. 29: Basketball player Nancy Lieberman

No. 28: Marathoner Grete Waitz

No. 27: Soccer player Michelle Akers

No. 26: Basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw

No. 25: Swimmer Dara Torres

No. 24: Golfer Nancy Lopez

No. 23: Swimmer Tracy Caulkins

No. 22: Soccer player Marta Vieira da Silva