Young players striving to be great tennis champions often are told that having at least one big weapon enhances their chances. And, of course, if any rising-teen-star is fortunate enough to have, not just a single weapon but an arsenal similar to that displayed by either Serena or Venus Williams, than his or her odds for success become increasingly better.

The Williams sisters, however, also came to the game armed with a secret weapon: their father, Richard, who saw them as superstars long before either understood what the game was all about. With a firm, steady and loving hand, Richard Williams planned and structured a path for his daughters that circumvented several potential, career-ending barriers.

He saw examples of top teen pro stars leaving the game early because of burnout and chronic injuries and decided that his girls wouldn’t travel that route. He saw the cutthroat tactics and petty politics in junior competition and bypassed it without regret. Neither of the sisters, however, was thrilled with dad’s decisions at the time, but in hindsight they’ve acknowledged the wisdom of his actions.

Segments of the media have yet to tip their hats to Richard in a significant way, nor have they expressed any mea culpas for the hostility and meanness they sometimes showed toward the family during those early years. For several years sports analysts/commentaries routinely urged Richard to remove himself from his daughters’ lives, seemingly oblivious to the role he played in their development as strong intelligent, young women, as well as world class competitors. Richard often was accused of “fixing” matches between the daughters and of unfairly condemning Indian Wells (CA) fans for boorish, if not racist behavior, during a final match between Serena and Kim Clijsters nearly 10 years ago. For more than two hours Serena was booed on the court and her father and Venus were booed and jeered in the stands. Richard said some fans used racial slurs.

“I realized that if I could win that match, I could win under any conditions,” said Serena after her victory at Indian Wells. “It made me tougher.” Neither sister has competed at that southern California event since that incident. They’ve continued, however, to be the women tour’s most successful and dynamic sisters duo.

No. 2 Serena and No. 3 Venus hope to stay on course for a highly anticipated U.S. Open semifinal showdown later this week by defeating opponents in the fourth round Sunday. Serena faces Slovakia’s Daniela Hantuchova and Venus plays Belgium’s Clijsters, the 2005 U.S. Open champion. Clijsters beat Venus in their last meeting, played here in the quarterfinals four years ago. Clijsters left the tour shortly afterwards, and is now married with a baby. She returned to the tour earlier this year.

On facing Venus, Clijsters said, “It’s something I already look forward to. It’s these kinds of matches that make it very special. Overall, when she has to bring it, she’s been able to bring it. That’s what they’ve both been really good at, Venus and Serena. They can really lift their level when they’re struggling. That’s a big talent to have.”

Obviously slowed with a sore knee, Venus described the former No. 1 Clijsters as a very determined and talented woman. “She’s living her dream on and off the court,” Venus said. “It’s great that she’s playing well.”

Addressing their last meeting, Venus said, “I was too hard on myself during the match. I was winning. I was thinking, ‘you’re not playing great.’ I lost. After that, I learned it doesn’t matter how you play, as long as you get the ball on the court. So it was a powerful lesson.”

The sisters might soon learn another potent lesson should their father decide to let them fend for themselves next year. He fulfilled his prophecy of guiding his daughters to No. 1 and No. 2 in the world years ago. When their careers faltered a few years ago after he moved on, Richard agreed last year to return to help his former wife, Oracene, guide their careers. They’ve climbed back to Nos. 2 and 3 since his return. Throughout the U.S. Open, he’s pulled double duty, overseeing Serena’s practice sessions and sometimes hours later, overseeing Venus’s practice sessions. He’s followed the same routine at tournaments throughout the world many times this year.

“It’s wearing me out,” Richard says. “I have some things I’d like to get done.”

You’ve got to wonder if Richard Williams would dare step away now, when his daughters clearly have become tennis’s most influential icons.