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Essence magazine, June 2001, Courting Destiny by Raquel Cepeda

Venus and Serena are tennis’s new power set. So why are they the center of so much racket?

Venus Williams is stunning in the flesh. The 21-year-old tennis star glides into the quaint, dimly lit lobby of the West Palm Beach, Florida, Marriott more like a runaway model than a pro athlete. She strolls in casually—all six feet two inches of mostly legs—clad in tiny jean shorts, a white Gucci fisherman’s hat covering her braids, and a sleeveless spandex top that says, in royal blue script, “Real.” I offer her my hand. She takes it firmly. I smile at her. She doesn’t smile back.

I’ll be straight with you: Before my interview with Venus and Serena, I know all the dish about how the sisters have been dubbed brash and unfriendly. But I also know what every person of color in America does—that merely stepping into a room and breathing is enough to make some folks label you “brash and unfriendly.” So I’ve set aside the rumors and come to let Venus and Serena show me who they are—and to explain why, in a sport that they clearly redefined, they still get almost zero love on the tennis circuit.

Not until 19-year-old Serena steps inot the room does Venus’ face light up. At five feet ten inches, Serena is shorter than her sister and equally striking. She sports a look that screams “I’m here!”—gold braids, a black micromini , a white cotton midriff top and a diamond-studded belly-button ring. It’s not hard to understand why just seeing the two sisters in the same room elicits comparisons, however unfair: Both are tennis Trojans who sport phat outfits as daring as those worn by the late sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner. But don’t get it twisted: Though Venus and Serena each have a killer game, they couldn’t be more different.

In case you aren’t one of the many proud Black folks who—though they don’t give a rip about tennis—have held their collective breath for these sisters’ victories, here’s the 11-second version of what you’ve missed. In 1999 Serena, then 17, became the first Black since tennis great Althea Gibson in 1958 to win the U.S. Open. Then last year, Venus beat Lindsay Davenport and walked away with a Wimbledon victory—another feat that hadn’t been accomplished by a Black person since Gibson did it 43 years ago. And at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Venus also become the first woman to win gold medals in both singles and in doubles, with Serena, since 1924.

Yet the Williams sisters haven’t been without their detractors. Since they entered the sport as children, critics and commentators have often dismissed their mental fierceness by overplaying their physical prowess. And that’s just a piece of the drama of what it means to be them: They travel constantly. Sometimes for six days a week, they push themselves through marathon-long sessions of practice. At only 19 and 21, they struggle to carve out a personal life. And then, of course, each sister sometimes has to compete with her best friend—the other one.

But none of this means the girls are whiners: They aren’t really even talkers. I spent more than a hour with the two, but they must’ve been interview-weary, because I didn’t exactly have to fight to squeeze a word in. Yet as a tennis player myself who grew up among the same well-heeled girls and opulent country clubs that have become their world, I can intuit a lot, and their mother and older sister fill in the details with comments they have never before shared in public. And in the end, I discover that what Venus and Serena don’t say is often just as revealing as what they do.

Compton to Wimbledon

I’ll do my part in debunking at least one urban legend. It’s true that the Williams sisters didn’t grow up on a prairie of white picket fences and privilege, but as tennis tots in Compton, California, Venus and Serena say they weren’t dodging bullets and warding off junkies either. As the story of their rise onto the plush green grass of Wimbledon goes, Richard Williams, their father, once saw a tennis player receive a check for $30,000 after winning a tournament. It was at that moment that he decided to turn his two youngest children into tennis titans. There was just one tiny detail Richard had to work out: They hadn’t yet been conceived.

As fortune would have it, his two youngest children turned out to be Venus and Serena. Richard, who back then oversaw a security agency, didn’t know squat about how to play tennis—so he taught himself using an instructional video. As soon as his daughters were old enough to grip a racket, he began taking them every day to practice on a set of broken-down tennis courts near their home. By age 10, after Venus had gone unbeaten in 63 games, she won southern California’s girls’ title in the under-12 division. Serena, who entered her first tournament when she was only 4, soon succeeded her sister in that same division.

If their father was the gale wind of discipline at the girls’ backs, their mother, Oracene, was the strong post that kept the gusts of strenuous work and stardom from toppling over their personal lives. “When Venus and Serena were very young, I would let them know that they had to be balanced, that they shouldn’t think more of themselves than they actually were,” says Oracene, who reared her children in the Jehovah’s Witness faith. In all, Oracene and Richard have five daughters: Venus and Serena; 28-year-old Yetunde, a nurse; 26-year-old Isha, a law-school student; and 23-year-old Lyndrea, a television executive.

Even before her youngest daughters were born, Oracene, a tennis enthusiast herself, was already familiarizing them with their court of destiny. While pregnant with Venus and again with Serena, she played a match every morning at five-thrity—before going to her full-time gig as a nurse. Later, when the Williamses’ preteen daughters practiced for six hours a day, six days a week, Oracene homeschooled them. And despite their father’s zealous guidance of their tennis careers, he always demanded that hitting the books take precedence over slamming the balls. In 1996, after Richard removed Venus from the junior tennis circuit so she could focus on her studies, he told the New York Times, “People say, ‘Richard, have her play tournaments.’ But I’d rather see my daughter with an education---not a common education like I have, but one that’s in demand.”

That’s a stance Richard’s daughters certainly respect him for now. “Kudos to them,” says Venus of her parents, “because they really brought us up well. They made sure we got our education so that we could become more than just athletes.” Though their father has had his share of bad press, some self-inflicted, his hand in the sisters’ ascent to dominance is certain. “It takes love to have that kind of dedication—and to do it at no cost,” says the second-oldest daughter, Isha, of their father’s unpaid tenure as Venus and Serena’s coach. Even now, they try to keep things in the family: Isha, upon graduating from law school, will handle the Williamses’ legal affairs.

Whatever anyone may think of Richard’s sometimes offbeat statements and actions—for instance, it was reported that he climbed atop an NBC booth after Venus’ victory at Wimbledon last year and held up a sign that read “It’s Venus’ party, and no one was invited” --he made one prediction that’s proving to be on point. When Venus and Serena were only 13 and 12, Richard declared that they would one day become the top two tennis players in the world.

Girlfriend Has an Attitude?

It would be surprising if the Williams girls didn’t come off as chilly at times. Being a powerful Black woman in a sport overrun with wealthy White girls who huddle for sherry hours and bond over Perrier is enough to send any ‘round-the-way girl AWOL. And let’s be real: What a White person calls a snub—like when one sports commentator remarked that it wouldn’t kill Venus and Serena to say hello to the other players in their locker room—is what a Black woman simply calls a strategy for blocking out negativity.

I know. In the late eighties, as a formerly ranked junior tennis player myself, I received a scholarship to attend a prestigious tennis academy in New York, and it was my introduction to a sport fraught with racial tension and outright bigotry. “There’s just a nasty disrespect you see on some people’s faces,” says Isha of her sisters’ experience among the tennis elite. “It’s like, 'They’re not supposed to be here.’ “ In fact, from the time Venus and Serena began competing in junior tournaments, Isha recalls that some people would tell their kids things like,"Don’t let that little Black girl beat you.”

“We still get hate mail,” Isha says. “That kind of thing gets put in your subconscious --in the far depths of your mind—and you just don’t think about it.” But that doesn’t mean the hurt doesn’t manifest itself in other ways. Some have accused Venus and Serena of being rude. But if that’s true, sniping at those who attack them may be their way of handling the pain of a constant barrage of unfair criticism. And as two of only a handful of Blacks ever to dominate their sport, the sisters have had to contend with one other ugly little reality: The same folks who dismiss them often fear them.

That’s because Venus and Serena are to tennis what Tiger Woods is to golf—an unsettling symbol of change in America. “I don’t think that White America will ever be ready to accept Black athletes who can think,” says Peter Noel, an investigative reporter for New York’s The Village Voice who witnessed firsthand the mixed reception Serena and Venus received at the 2000 U.S. Open. In one article he wrote, “Fear of the Williams Sisters,” Noel dismisses the myth of the “superbred Black athlete” by pointing out Venus’ and Serena’s mental tenacity and strategic dominance. And still, Noel says, some White Americans view them as girls who came up from the ghetto who can’t really help put it down on a blackboard or in a game plan.

Last September, even tennis pundit John McEnroe pummeled the girls in an article he wrote for London’s Telegraph, charging the two with numerous counts of un- friendliness and bad character. This is the same John McEnroe who was thrown out of Long Island, New York’s famed Port Washington Tennis Academy as a youngster for his, well, bratty behavior. The John McEnroe whose temper tantrums are more legendary than his mastery of the sport.

“When the sisters met in the semifinals at Wimbledon 2000, sports announcers suggested that their father had fixed the match,” says New York writer Ayesha Grice, who has closely followed Venus’ and Serena’s careers. “Instead of pointing out that two sisters hadn’t met in a match in decades—and had never met in the semifinals—the rumors kept seeping through in the media that something wasn’t right.” And still, after a six-month hiatus from the game and amid rumors of her early retirement, Venus went on to trounce her archrivals, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, to win both Wimbledon and, later, the U.S. Open.

But the criticism hasn’t waned. World-ranked player Pete Sampras once dismissed Venus’ 127-mph serve as sheer luck. Then former world-ranked player Martina Navratilova—once criticized for being too masculine and aggressive for women’s tennis—was reported to have denounced the Williams sisters’ interest in fashion as being arrogant and a sign of their lack of commitment to the game. “I prepared Venus and Serena for public scrutiny when they were very young, because I knew it would become part of their lives,” says their mother, Oracene. “I wanted to make sure they were able to deal with the criticism and not take it personally—to keep it at a distance and to keep their lives priviate.” That might be why when I mention Navratilova’s comment to Serena, she says with indifference, “I didn’t hear about that. People are entitled to their own opinions."

The Power Set

We’ve all heard the reports that Venus and Serena, although at times opponents on the court, couldn’t be any tighter away from the game—in fact, they bought a Florida home together, which they’ve decorated in what they call a “contemporary classic” style. But all that love floating between them sort of makes you want to ask: Does their public camaraderie ever spiral into private competition?

Like all sisters you can be sure they’ve had their squabbles, though Isha says their kinship couldn’t be more real. And no matter how many titles Serena wins, says Isha, Venus will always play the big-sister role. “Venus takes all blows,” she says, “so Serena is able to be free-spirited. That’s good, because that’s who Serena really is.”

Not that the youngest Williams daughter travels in her older sister’s shadow. That became clear two years ago when Serena beat out Venus and all others vying for the coveted U.S. Open top spot—a moment of victory that was followed by that unforgettable image of an ecstatic Serena, gripping her trophy while tears of joy flooded her face. “For the firs time, she was catapulted out of Venus’ shadow and put in the spotlight,” says Isha. “She accomplished that victory on her own, before anyone else in our family.”

There were many reports of a somber Venus looking on as Serena won the family’s first grand slam title. But according to Isha, that’s quintessential Venus: serious and quiet. “She has carried much of the burden of their stardom,” says Isha of Venus. “She’s kind of world-weary. She has this attitude like, ‘Been there, done that.’ That’s just the person she is.”

It takes Serena to tell you about Venus Lite—the self-professed “introvert” who is also a Golden Girls junkie. In a Tennis magazine story in which the sisters interviewed each other, Serena wrote, “Most people consider Venus serious because they only see her on the court….But beneath that introverted surface is ‘Venus the Joker.’ If you ever see us play a doubles match, you’ll notice that the majority of the time, we’re giggling—and it’s usually at one of her jokes!” Serena continues, “Venus is more than a great tennis player—she is a great older sister, friend and person. Seeing that others are being helped, making sure her family is doing okay, and, above all, making sure that little sis is safe are what truly mean the most to her.”

It was that kind of maturity and strength of character—along with Venus’ graciousness while being constantly provoked—that led Sports Illustrated for Women to name her “Sportswoman of the Year 2000.” After winning in a straight-set match over Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon last year, Venus told the magazine, “I feel really calm. I love playing tennis, I love winning titles. And I realize I wouldn’t be any happier in my life in general if I won or lost. Sure, in the tennis part of life, I’d be much happier if I won. But winning, losing, money,riches or fame don’t make you happy. For my tennis career, this is great. But as far as me being Venus, it doesn’t really make a huge difference.”

All About Business

Though Venus says she doesn’t feel any extra pressure as one of the few African- American on the pro circuit, her sister admits that racist undertones do permeate the sport. “And I’m sure there’s a lot of hidden racism,” says Serena. Yet because they keep winning tournaments and titles, they’re in constant demand. “When you’re a winner,” Serena points out, “everyone—Black, White, Mexican or Hindu—wants to get on your team.”

Indeed corporate sponsors are lining up to sign the sisters. Both Venus and Serena recently entered a three-year, $7 million contract to endorse Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum. Venus also inked a $40 million contract with Reebok, while Serena sealed a $12 million deal with Puma. And the cosmetics company Avon recently signed the Williams sisters as spokeswomen in its first-global campaign, “Let’s Talk.” “They are young, spirited, fun, beautiful women who just happen to be sisters with a very strong and loving relationship,” says Janice Spector, vice-president of advertising for Avon. The television spots feature Venus and Serena in a personal dialogue, a snapshot of the beauty buzz that happens when women get together to talk about the products they love and use. “It’s a great deal, and Avon is a great company,” says Serena. “They’re like a Mercedes, one of the best things you can get out there.”

That leaves the girls with around three minutes a day for trivial endeavors like, say, sleep. But that doesn’t stop Serena from keeping her personal life popping. “Besides being a tennis player,” she says, “I’m a designer, a model, an actress and a rapper.” While Serena did appear in rapper Memphis Bleek’s Do My video featuring Jay-Z, the “I’m a rapper” line is a joke. Serena will, however, make a cameo appearance in Black Knight, a comedy starring Martin Lawrence, slated for release this fall. She also took a design job with Wilson’s Leather to create her own line of clothing, which she’ll unveil this August. With such a demanding schedule, no wonder Venus and Serena say they’re “off the market”—not dating or even thinking about it.

Besides having a passion for collecting designer watches and bags—on the day of our interview, Venus shows up carrying an enviable chocolate-brown—and—tan checked Louis Vuitton purse—they are equally serious about clothes. “I’ve decided I want to design,” says Venus, who along with her sister is a design student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in Florida. “It’s fun, and it always keeps changing. It’s kind of like tennis—you have to keep reinventing yourself and getting better in order to have something new to bring to the market.”

Venus and Serena have made no apologies for being kick-butt tennis players. Or for being confident, independent thinkers. Or for making women’s tennis exciting by fusing an aggressive game with fashionably bold statement. Maybe all the joking around with each other that they do on and off the court keeps Venus and Serena from internalizing the criticism lesser mortals might succumb to. Or maybe they just like to laugh.

Raquel Cepeda is a writer in New York.