09/03/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
Sure, the check for $1.4 million was nice. And yeah, walking off with the sterling silver trophy had to feel good. But for Venus Williams the real prize came just moments after she surprised the tennis world by winning her fourth Wimbledon championship July 7. That's when her boyfriend, PGA Tour golfer Henry "Hank" Kuehne, blew her a kiss from the stands—the first time she's ever had a significant other rooting her on to one of her 35 career victories. "I love having him there," says Williams, lighting up at the mention of Kuehne, 31. "He comes to tournaments and I go to golf. I wasn't actively looking for a guy at nightclubs or anything like that. And then I met someone randomly when I wasn't looking."
Like her mythological namesake, the Roman goddess of love, Venus has a certain glow about her these days. She is also, at 27, coming into her own, showing a new maturity both on the court—where she willed her way to her Wimbledon win after battling injuries and being ranked 31st, the lowest rank ever for an eventual female champion (she was also the first to be awarded as much as the male Wimbledon champ)—and away from tennis, where she has two thriving careers as an interior decorator and a fashion designer. Heading into the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 27, Williams is suddenly the darling of her sport once more. "You can tell she's evolved, that she's not a teenager anymore," says her friend, former tennis great Billie Jean King. "She's a woman now and she has a mind of her own, and she's grown into the leader of her generation on tour."
The 6'1", 170-lb. Williams even looks different: more athletic and not as lanky as when she turned pro at 14, a blur of knees and elbows. "It's a lifestyle kind of thing," explains Williams, who doesn't diet but who did change the way she eats. "When I came home from trips I would buy any type of candy I wanted, eat it and feel just awful. But that was in my foolish younger days—last year!" Always wise beyond her age, say those who know her, Williams "has more confidence now," says her sister Serena, 25—who herself overcame a slump to win the Australian Open in January. "I'm not the most positive person, but she is. It's awesome how she never loses faith in herself or anyone else. No one knows how hard she works."
Ironically, part of the change in Venus came about when she decided to cut herself some slack. "We were raised to be strong and to depend on ourselves," she says. "But getting older I've learned that sometimes you don't have to be so strong. I realized it's okay to not do everything, to have a little help." For starters, Williams has found room in her jam-packed schedule to spend time with Kuehne, only the second serious boyfriend she's had. "We watch a lot of movies and just hang out being silly," says Williams, who met Kuehne when both were going to the same physical therapist last year and has been seeing him since early this year. "I would be in [my trainer's] house watching football or something and he'd come over and I wouldn't really notice. But then he needed to use my cell phone once and he had my number after that. He's just a great guy."
Certainly Kuehne, who is divorced and has a 23-month-old son, sounds smitten. "Love would be a fair way to describe the status of our relationship," he told England's Sunday Express. "She is one of the most sincere, wonderful and caring women I have ever met and I enjoy every moment with her." Even Williams's famously temperamental father, Richard, approves of Kuehne, not least because he's a pro athlete. "Henry understands competition and he's very supportive," says Venus, who has yet to swing a golf club. "My trainer told me I wasn't allowed to. But maybe at the end of the year I'll try it."
By then her new line of sneakers, clothing and accessories, called EleVen, will be available in Steve & Barry's stores (it debuts on Nov. 15), to go along with her successful home decorating business, V Starr Interiors. Incredibly, Williams—who lives in a Spanish-style home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.—has never been on a full-blown vacation, something else she plans to try. "I went to Italy once for a week, but other than that, no," she says. "I hate luggage. I just look at luggage and get so angry!" Other indulgences: "I've been thinking about getting that last Harry Potter book," she says. "And I used to never get my nails done, but now I always do." One thing she's given up, though, is a beauty regimen she has long shared with her little sis. "When we were younger, Serena and I always told each other, 'You look great,' or 'You look so cute,' or we'd look in a mirror and say, 'Look at me, I'm so cute,' but I just noticed I don't do that anymore," she says. "Now it's not so important, I guess. I'm not thinking about whether I'm cute or not."
That would be the new Venus Williams: older, more confident and happier than ever. "I've made a lot of mistakes along the way; I'm not perfect," she says. "I still have a lot of growing up to do. But I've grown up a lot."