Venus Willaims meets fans during Hilton Head appearance

April 7, 2015
By Matt McCombs
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Ava Gustason didn't believe it when her parents told her.

The 10-year-old from Peachtree City, Ga., on vacation with her family on Hilton Head Island, thought it was a trick when her mom and dad, Angie and Eric Gustason, told her she was going to meet Venus Williams on Monday at Players' World of Sports.

"They even showed me the sign," Ava said. "I told them, 'That doesn't mean anything, it's just a sign.' I thought it was a trick."

It wasn't. The 22-time Grand Slam champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist was promoting her EleVen line of tennis and athletic apparel, posing for pictures with anyone who had purchased an article from her line at Players' World of Sports.

She signed autographs, gave out hugs and chatted with fans like Gustason.

"For me, being able to connect with my fans is a really special moment because when you're at the tournaments it's a little bit crazy," Williams said after the last of the 147 customers in line had their picture taken with the star. "But having the opportunity to meet people and hear their story is very motivating for me, as well.

"And also, to see them wearing the clothes, it makes me feel so good. So there are all these wonderful elements of connection that happen when I come out and meet the EleVen fans."

One of those fans was former No. 1 player in the world and two-time Grand Slam winner Stan Smith, a longtime Hilton Head resident who called Williams, and her sister Serena, favorites of his.

"It's funny. A lot of us older players criticized both of them for not being totally focused and then after their careers, doing other things," Smith said. "And now Kim Clijsters, (Martina) Hingis, though she's back, (Justine) Henin, (Lindsay) Davenport, all the girls are the same age. And they're long gone, and she's still playing. Maybe they were right, not being totally focused, and having other interests.

"She's always been one of the great competitors."

Smith said the chance for fans, especially younger players, to meet a star like Venus Williams is important.

"Hopefully, it's motivation," he said. "It's also something we've done at the (Smith Stearns) academy. We take the kids to the Davis Cup matches, to college matches. It's important for the kids to get a dream from seeing some of the those players. Sometimes it's better to see it than to hear it from coaches."

For store owner Tom Jilly, who saw the line of customers to meet Williams wind through the store and stretch onto the sidewalk for more than an hour, the event was more than motivation.

"It'll be our best day of the year," he said.

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