The New York Times Magazine:
Cover Story: Venus and Serena Against the World
15 years after the sisters’ first U.S. Open, they’re still the most interesting story in sports.
By JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
Excerpt from article:
There’s video that exists of Venus and Serena Williams playing tennis when they were kids — 8 and 7, respectively — in the late ’80s, on unshaded but otherwise decent-looking public courts in California. This is not one of the clips you’ve maybe seen, taken from various news segments, but an earlier, stranger video, made by their father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, as a kind of audition tape for the tennis-instructional guru Vic Braden, ostensibly requesting an invitation to Braden’s camp, although the real reason for it, you can’t help feel in watching, simply was to let Braden know that greatness had arrived in the world. Richard’s face in the film as he presents the girls to Braden seems, as it does so often, on the brink of laughter. This was in Compton, the low-income, gang-afflicted hub city outside Los Angeles, an area made infamous by many a rap song. Although they enjoyed about as stable an upbringing as you could have in Compton back then, its problems were no mere abstraction: they supposedly knew to lie down on the court when gunshots rang out in the park. And there’s a story that Richard, when asked what he would do if his daughters ever won a Grand Slam, said he would go back and try to help the Crips who sometimes looked out for the girls during their practice sessions. “Venus Williams Is Straight Outta Compton!” read an early promotional poster their father made, to post on telephone poles. He billed the two as celebrities before they were even famous. That was how you did it. Not fake it till you make it. You decided what you were. First you had the belief, and then you had the training. “Belief and training,” Venus told me a couple of weeks ago when I met with her in Cincinnati, where she and Serena were playing in a tournament just days after returning from the Olympics. “That was unconquerable.”
She sat at a round, empty table in the meeting room at the Hyatt, first messing with her dog, a little terrierlike creature, and then placing it inside a duffel bag, where it apparently liked to hang out, because it stayed completely silent there for the better part of two hours, not even receiving any treats or anything. “He’s unemployed,” she said, forcing him with her fingers to make a face at me.
Because she’s usually frowning and scowling on court, or squinting and chewing the inside of her mouth, or looking bummed in the changeover chair — or finally at the end sometimes grinning and laughing maniacally — it’s easy to find yourself unprepared for her sheer prettiness, as witnessed when she’s more or less at ease, 6-foot-1 in pale designer jeans, quietly flashing the smile that made her at one time the richest woman in sports (before Maria Sharapova came along).
I was trying to bring the person across the table into some kind of stereoscopic harmony with the girl on the tape, the one whose short, beaded braids hang like a fringe of tassels on the side of her head. It showed her hitting big, swinging volleys from midcourt at about the skill level of a decent college player, except that she was catching them up above her head, scything the fed balls out of the air with enough topspin to send them arcing down toward the lines. After an especially good shot, Richard would say, “Good shot, Venus,” and Venus would say, in dulcet tones that retained a trace of his Louisiana syrup, “Thank you, Daddy.”
Richard addresses the camera directly. Venus and Serena stand on either side of him, taking shelter in the shadow of his legs as if the camera might not find them there. Richard reveals to Braden that they have been watching his popular tape, “Tennis Our Way,” quoting his fantastically optimistic slogan, “You’ll be famous by Friday.” Richard can’t remember the exact wording. “You kept saying we’d be good by Friday,” he tells Braden. “We was good by Tuesday. We should be great by Friday.”
The remarkable thing about the tape, from the point of view of someone interested in tennis, isn’t the almost voyeuristically candid preflight glimpse it gives of some soon-to-be superstars but simply the footage of Venus hitting. She doesn’t bounce on her feet yet between every shot, she hasn’t fully learned that readiness; she just stands there, in her jeans, waiting to be fed the next ball. Nor is it even the excellence of her technique, although her technique, it goes without saying, is ridiculous for an 8-year-old. It’s more something that she doesn’t even know she’s doing, something having to do with the transfer of force, of mass, from the back of her body to the front, and the way that this transference is passed along into the shot, the way it enters her racket head at precisely the millisecond she hits the ball, resulting in a kind of popping sound, the distinctive pop in ball-striking that signals someone who can really play, the thing you simply cannot and will never learn to do if you are a hack or even a pretty good player who has hit that cruel ceiling, the limits of your own physical ability, beyond which you cannot progress, even after decades of lessons and work, but beyond which some 8-year-old girls can go and indeed beyond which they were born. It’s the tyranny of talent. Watching this little girl do it, watching her have it, that lays it bare, undeniably evident, extracted from the game like the Higgs boson from those protons.
I asked Venus about this tape, if she remembered it at all. She did, she said (vaguely, I sensed), but in general she tries not to look back, preferring to remain “at a continuum of moving forward.”
If Braden ever watched the tape, there survives no mention of it. He must have had parents trying to sell him on their little prodigies every day, and even if he had noticed — as he could not have failed to — that the girls, especially the older one, possessed the proverbial “thing that can’t be taught,” there was plenty else in the tape to put him off. The father’s boasting (relatively subdued, for this performance) has about it the whiff of slight insanity. The way he keeps mentioning the “famous by Friday” business, the way he talks about the girls not as promising youngsters but as celebrities, as princesses, as if he worships his own creation. His Southern accent verges at times on the unintelligible. “Stay in touch with us,” spoken pathetically, hopefully, toward the end of the tape, sounds like, “Stain touch widders.”
Although he has been the subject of excellent profile writing (notably in Sports Illustrated, by S. L. Price and L. Jon Wertheim), Richard Williams remains an eternally elusive and evasive figure. I find him powerfully and movingly American somehow. His whole personality seems to have evolved as a complex reaction-structure to an insecurity so profound that it must remain secret, especially from him. Throughout his daughters’ careers, he has gone about fanning a splendor of boxing-promoter language, of lies, half-truths, boasts, misstatements, non sequiturs, buffoonery, needless exaggerations, megalomania, paranoia — as well as here and there genuinely wise, amusing lines — all of which, you begin to feel, are designed (subconsciously, yes, but no less shrewdly) to deflect attention away from a still, small center, the place where he dwells and operates. It’s there that he is who he is, whoever he is.
He came from a part of Shreveport, Lurr-zeeana, as he pronounces it, in a neighborhood whose school was called, amazingly, Little Hope. At various times he has told reporters or anyone who listened that he was a sports star there in his youth — and certainly it seems plausible, given his height (6-4-ish) and what we realize to have been present at least in a nascent way in the genes — but there are no records of these exploits, if they occurred. Perhaps he dreamed them. Perhaps he assigned them to himself the way a great novelist might give them to a character, as a necessary past for the Father of the Williams Sisters. Perhaps (most likely) he needed them in order to be the girls’ father, to carry the necessary authority in their eyes. Listen to me, now. I was like you. I was a great athlete, too. That may have been useful.
The source that brings us closest to him, precisely because of its complete lack of objectivity, is an extraordinary documentary made just over a decade ago, “Raising Tennis Aces: The Williams Story,” by a black Englishman named Terry Jervis, who himself possesses, from what can be gauged, self-promotional instincts downright Richard Williams-like in aspect. The film is about Richard Williams, mainly, but also done in collusion with him.
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Excerpt used with permission from The New York Times Magazine