Richard Williams predicted in the mid 1990s that his younger daughters – Venus and Serena – would one day become superstars in the predominantly white world of tennis. Sports fans and media-types alike responded with variations of the phrase made famous by tennis great John McEnroe: ”You cannot be serious!” Williams not only was serious; more importantly, he was right.
At 17, big sister, Venus, startled the sports world by clawing her way through six matches at the 1997 U.S. Open before losing to Martina Hingis 6-0, 6-4 in the final. Venus finished the year ranked No. 8 in the world, giving Williams a national platform from which he could dangle other juicy morsels. He soon offered this intriguing tidbit. “Wait until they get a load of Serena (who was then 15),” Williams said. “She’s going to be better than Venus and she’s not as nice as Venus. She’s really mean; sometimes I’m scared of her.”
Two years later, little sis, Serena, also at age 17, confirmed dad’s prophecy, upsetting Hingis 6-3, 7-6 (4) in the 1999 U.S. Open final. If Serena defeats Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in Saturday’s Wimbledon final, she’d claim her sixth major grass court crown, her 21st major title and stand alone as this generation’s dominant pro. She trails Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Smith Court (24) for the women’s career record for major titles.
Serena says Muguruza, who upset Serena in the 2014 French Open second round, forced her to find her focus.
“She made me improve,” Serena said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the final here [three years]. It’s really cool.”
A victory Saturday would give her a second ‘Serena Slam’ (four consecutive major titles – Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) and the third leg of the Grand Slam (four majors in the same calendar year). Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Smith Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) are the only women holders of the game’s most prestigious prize. Though Serena trails Graf (22) and Court (24) for the women’s career record for major singles titles, several of the game’s all-time greats already have dubbed her the ‘best ever’ women’s pro.
“When she is at her best she is better than anybody else,” says ESPN analyst Chris Evert, who has 18 major titles.
McEnroe added: “She’s chasing history …. going for a Grand Slam which is obviously so rare,” ESPN analyst McEnroe said. “Even though she’s playing arguably her best tennis, you have to wonder at a certain point how long (she) can keep it up. There’s got to be a sense of urgency.”
At 33, when most top-ranked pros lose a step or began a downward spiral in the rankings, World No. 1 Serena is at the top of her game. Big sister, Venus, 35, has been slowed by fatigue and joint pain caused by an illness (Sjogren’s Syndrome), since 2011. Former No.1 Venus, who was beaten by Serena in the fourth round earlier this week, has won 46 career titles, including seven majors (five Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens). Venus quashed retirement questions at Wimbledon last year saying, “I’m not getting outta here. They don’t encourage you to stay around in tennis, but I want to win (major titles). I want to look back with no regrets.”
The sisters’ success – and indeed, their longevity – can be attributed to their father’s thoughtful planning during the early years of their development. Williams described the USTA’s junior circuits back then as a cesspool of politics and racism. He overheard racists comments made by parents about his daughters and decided not to let his girls play in any USTA events. He also saw too many parents and juniors in combative relationships because of stress, anger and injuries brought on by excessive play. He didn’t want tennis to become a job that would rob his daughters of their childhood. He encouraged them to study and to learn as much as they could about the world and how it works. He allowed them to open bank accounts after they turned pro and helped them manage their money. He taught them to be respectful and polite to everyone.
His philosophy didn’t change after they became pros. They played a limited number of events and he encouraged them to pursue other interests. Venus attended college classes in fashion design and both sisters have their own line of designer apparel. Serena also dabbles in acting and has made guest appearances in several television shows including the Simpsons, the Bernie Mac Show and Law & Order Special Victims Unit.
“Everyone does different things,” Serena says. “I think for Venus and I, we just attempted a different road, and it worked for us.”
The Williams’ family most traumatic brush with racism occurred at a 2001 Indian Wells, CA event. It was precipitated by Venus’ decision to withdraw from a semifinal match against Serena due to a knee injury moments before the match was to start. Some players and media suggested that Venus had faked the injury. During the women’s final match that pitted Serena against Kim Cljisters, the crowd harshly booed Williams and Venus when they took their seats in the stands and booed Serena throughout the match.
Days after the incident, Indian Wells tournament director Charlie Pasarell said, “I was cringing when all that stuff was going on. It was unfair for the crowd to do that.”
Said Williams: “I had trouble holding back tears. All I could think of was my child was out on that court by herself in front of all these ignorant people. If I were Venus or Serena, I’d never play Indian Wells again. Whether they go back again is up to them.”
Serena defeated Clijisters despite the hostile crowd. She said the experience strengthened her resolve and taught her how to overcome tough opponents even when backed by hostile crowds.
“I don’t feel loved there anymore,” Serena said at the time. “I don’t know if I’ll go back.”
Serena ended a 13-year boycott of the event last March, but Venus did not.
Shortly after the incident Venus said, “People are so ready to believe that racism doesn’t exist. Just because it doesn’t happen to you or you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It was just 40 years ago that black people and other people, Jews, Orientals were fighting just to be treated fairly. This country has a history of treating minorities badly and that’s sad.”
The sadness of which Venus spoke of continues, pushed along by a segment of our society that openly attempts to defile the character of our nation’s president and allows young black males to be slain unjustly by police officers or misguided young white men, one of whom spent an hour in prayer in a South Carolina church before murdering nine black worshippers. White America continues to have trouble walking in the shoes of black America.
In the early years, some members of the media considered Williams unfit to guide his daughters’ careers. They urged him to place their careers in the hands of others. Though not perfect, Williams isn’t the ogre that many through the years have portrayed him to be. The sisters, I’m sure, are delighted that their father never took the media’s advice. Only after his daughters became young adults did Richard Williams step into the background. He had given them the guidance, the love and the confidence they needed to become extraordinary young women, as well as outstanding tennis pros.
He knows that they will never received the accolades and love that a white sisters’ act would have received, but I believe he can live with that, mainly because his dreams for them have been fulfilled.
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