April 10, 2014

SERENA WILLIAMS - Daddy's Girl

 

Since my column written for Suite101.com back in the day is no longer archived there, I am presenting a few of the articles here at A Line A Day.  Many of them were time sensitive so I’ll pass on taking a stroll down memory lane with those.  But a few stand up pretty good in reprint despite the passage of years since they were written.  I have reprinted IMAGINE here because athletes being busted for taking performance enhancing drugs continues to be a plague on sports.  More recently I reprinted THE BLACK ATHLETE in response to the 2013-14 NFL season beginning with a record 9 African American men taking the field as starting quarterback for their respective teams.  I happened to attend a game that featured two of them, with Geno Smith of my beloved New York Jets earning victory over Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by the slimmest of margins.  In that post I also included a snippet from an article I wrote about the youngMichael Vick long before his legal difficulties and eventual comeback led me to write about him a couple more times.  The article I am reprinting below was written about the Williams sisters back in 2001 during the US Open.  As I predicted might happen, Venus ended up defending her title by defeating her younger sister Serena.  Fast forward twelve years and once again the US Open champion is a Williams, only this time around Serena was the victor and she did not need to go through any family members to earn it.  Serena merely had to get over the fact that at age 31, her talent level is supposed to be in sharp decline.  Instead she has never looked better on the court.  She’s looking pretty good off it as well.  So I decided to reprint this article in her honor, and if a decade down the line she somehow is STILL winning Majors, I’ll reprint it yet again.  Take a bow, Serena.  You too, Venus, even though your prime now appears to be in the rear view mirror.  And shout out to Richard Williams who has been keeping a relatively low profile of late, and has recently become a father again in his 70’s.  Will a third Williams be hoisting up championship tennis trophies some day?  I wouldn't bet against it.

 

Once upon a time. No, let me be more precise. On June 11, 1978 an event took place that would end up transforming the world of tennis, though not for many years to come. It was on this day that Virginia Ruzici won the French Open women's singles championship. A man who resided in California was watching on television and he found himself amazed not so much by the skill and effort displayed by Virginia during the match, as by the size of the check she received at the end of it. Over twenty thousand dollars for a day's work. Not bad at all. The man vowed that any children his wife gave birth to in the following years would play tennis. Since those children would need to be taught how to play, and he was by no means a wealthy man who could provide them with top notch instructors, he bought some books and videotapes and taught himself the game. Within three years the man's family had grown by two daughters. They were named Venus and Serena. Their training ground would be the less than pristine glass strewn public courts of Compton. Unlike a sport such as basketball that requires no more than a single ball to be shared by everyone and a rim attached to a backboard, the considerably pricier game of tennis rarely generates its stars from ghetto neighborhoods. American phenoms in expensive sports like golf and tennis tend to be white, and they almost always have the advantage of elite training at top tier institutions. Neither was the case for Venus and Serena. What they did have was a determined father with a master plan. And since their starting point was not the conventional one, it stands to reason that the steps taken along the way were radical as well. Eyebrows of those who thought they knew it all were certainly raised when Richard Williams pulled his daughters from the junior ranks, even though Venus by that point at age 11 had earned national attention for her prowess. He relocated his family to Fort Lauderdale where for the next 3-1/2 years there would be no tournaments or competitive match play for the Williams sisters. Even after the traditional route had become an option, rather than following it, Richard arranged for his daughters to practice, practice and practice some more with academy instructor Rick Macci. Instead of going through the machinations usually employed to churn out professional tennis players, Venus and Serena kept tennis as a focal point, but not as the only thing in their lives. They earned high school diplomas with top marks, developed outside interests such as their love of fashion. But all the while, the eyes of Richard and his daughters remained on the prize. And now, twenty three years after that fateful match won by Virginia Ruzici, the most prevalent questions being asked in tennis circles are the following three. Will Serena Williams once again reign as the US Open women's champion? Or will the 2001 version of this contest be won for the second time in a row by arguably the best female player in the world - a gal named Venus? And lastly, wouldn't it be something if they ended up playing each other for this honor in the Final? It seems there was a method to Richard's madness. 

Why then has the extraordinary success of Venus and Serena been routinely accompanied by controversy and flat out resentment? Why are these talented, intelligent, attractive young ladies the least popular players on the tour? Was Venus' sudden withdrawal before a match sufficient cause for Serena to be subjected to a cascade of jeering rather than cheering as she earned a championship at Indian Wells earlier this year? And even if the circumstances of that day were somewhat suspicious, why was it reported that words far more offensive than "boo" were yelled at Serena? 

Some would blame the perceived "unladylike" arrogance of the Williams sisters, demonstrated by the fact that they rarely credit losses to superior play by their opponents, and the audacity they showed in turning down lucrative endorsements until the stakes grew sufficiently lofty. Others would cite envy of Venus and Serena, who seem less dedicated than those they routinely annihilate because they play in considerably less tournaments than their top ten peers. There are those who are convinced that the outcome of matches between Venus and Serena are fixed, depending on whose turn it has been determined to be the victor. A few people probably had a problem with the beads once worn in their hair, or the colorful form fitting outfits they don to better exhibit their tall, lean, muscular physiques. Would someone be playing the so called race card in claiming that the brown skin of Venus and Serena is at the root of the troubles they find, or simply stating the obvious? There do happen to be folks on the professional tennis circuit who have predominantly positive comments to make about the Williams sisters. There actually are players who do not form competitive alliances against them, such as was admittedly done by Lindsey Davenport and Martina Hingis during last year's US Open. But even the majority of these people cease to compliment and start expressing disapproval towards the architect of the Williams master plan - Papa Williams. 

When Richard Williams encounters racism, such as he said he did at Indian Wells, he is not shy about bringing it up and shouting it down. When he merely suspects that he detects it, such as when Irina Spirlea bumped into Venus during a changeover, he does not hesitate to brand her "a big, tall, white turkey", nor to contend that the incident was motivated by a broader racist attitude on the tour. He did later apologize for insulting Spirlea, but he is never apologetic about exposing racism, nor about exhibiting excessive pride to the point of gloating over his daughters' accomplishments. Richard Williams has been blamed for and accused of many things, but subtlety is not one of them. This is a man who has attended matches sporting signs that read "It couldn't have happened to a nicer family" and "I told you so". This is a man who once went on to the court and performed a celebratory dance on behalf of Venus while her vanquished opponent stormed off. Richard Williams has not chosen to hold his tongue about additional fees he feels his daughters should receive due to the greatly expanded fan base they are wholly responsible for bringing to tennis, much as Tiger Woods has done in golf. Speaking of Tiger, it is natural to compare his feats and impact to that of Venus and Serena. They do after all share the ability to win virtually at will and often with great ease; a plethora of lucrative endorsements; a Jackie Robinson like effect on the formerly lily white sports they have come to dominate; and unique names that match the flair of their playing styles. Yet even Earl Woods, father of Tiger, has been critical about the antics of Richard Williams and how Venus and Serena's behavior reflects poorly on their upbringing.

The more Richard Williams shouts to be given his due, to have the near miracle he has accomplished be properly acknowledged, the more scorn and derision he invites. And some of it inevitably spills over on to his daughters whether they deserve it or not. Instead of the genius who managed to put two of his children simultaneously in the upper echelons of tennis, enabling them to earn fortune and fame, he is cast in the villainous role of detriment to their brilliant and apparently limitless careers. There will probably be no end to the stream of conspiracy theorists and Martinas like Navratilova and Hingis who claim that rather than being held down by race, Richard takes advantage of it in a politically correct climate to get away with what others would be crucified for. And they probably do make some valid points, even while mostly missing the point. 


In rebuttal, I believe Richard Williams would say to his detractors, and most likely stated far more boldly than I will put it here - "Do you think you can do a better job molding well rounded, well adjusted, one (make that two) of a kind multi-millionaire athletes out of nothing but a ghetto dream inspired by a memorable moment of television viewing? Let's see you try."

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