The girls with the Big Titles
One was reading the other day about how bookmakers are quoting odds on either of Roger Federer's just born twin daughters winning a grand slam tournament (25 to 1) and Wimbledon (100 to 1) by the time they reach their 26th birth day. One just wondered what odds would be quoted around 20 years back on a set of sisters growing up in the tough LA suburb of Compton win more than a handful of grand slam titles between them. Surely the odds would be far higher than the ones mentioned earlier.
Serena and Venus Williams, some how, were never one's favourites because they some how had changed the game of Tennis into something to do with an incredible bludgeoning of the tennis ball punctuated with guttural grunts. Insinuations of sticking to the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law (injury breaks at opportune moments in a match) took some sheen off Serena's achievements. The overbearing personality of their father was a sore point and their extremely glamorous life style seemed at odds with the more muted lives of other Tennis stars. It was obviously only about perception.
But some how the sheer weight of their performance, the realisation that they have now become older and more mature in this game where players are getting younger by the day and the way Serena, especially, came back from a long slump has brought about a drastic change in one's perception. Women Tennis Players may be getting an equal prize money in today's world, but given the kind of press coverage of the top Men players, the achievements of the Williams' sisters seem to be underplayed.
One came across this brilliant piece written by Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian before the US Open 2009, which is published in full (fearing any distortion to the link at a later date) below. It's an interview with Serena and obviously things are described from her persepctive. But it's a fascniating one. Enjoy!!
Two years ago, Serena Williams let out a mighty yelp. She was playing in the Australian Open, she was slow, overweight, and had sunk to 81 in the world rankings. And she'd just about had enough. At that moment it was impossible to know whether she'd had enough of success or of failing.
The yelp proved to be a turning point. Match by match, she remade herself. She slapped her thighs, swore at herself, and forced herself on. Astonishingly, she reached the final to play the in-form Maria Sharapova. So that was that. After all, she'd played hardly any match tennis for two years, and you couldn't win a major on willpower alone. The former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash had called her "deluded" when she said she planned to be number one again.
Williams did not simply beat Sharapova that day, she annihilated her. It was one of the most unlikely victories the sport has seen. By the end, the woman who could barely stretch for a ball in her first match was lithe, fast, subtle and brutal.
After the match, she rolled on her back, legs kicking in the air like a puppy. She bowed and blew kisses, mouthed, "Oh my God!" and whooped and whooped and whooped again. Then she made a thank you speech that said everything you needed to know about the rise and fall of Serena Jameka Williams. "I would like to dedicate this win to my sister, who's not here. Her name is Yetunde. I just love her so much... So thanks, Tunde," she said, before breaking down in tears. Tunde, her eldest sister, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Compton, LA, in 2003.
If Serena wins the US Open, which starts on Monday, she will regain her world number one spot. Even if she doesn't, she will have made the most remarkable comeback. In 2003, she became only the fifth woman in history to win the grand slam (simultaneously to hold all four majors). Today, she has reclaimed three of them – winning the US Open last year and the 2009 Australian Open and Wimbledon titles, and for good measure taking the doubles in Melbourne and London with her sister for the second successive year.
It is an extraordinary story, but not one that comes on its own. It is also the story of her sister, Venus, and of the whole Williams clan, and it belongs as much to myth and marketing as to fact. Their father, Richard Williams, started telling it when his girls were tiny: how years ago he had read that top tennis players could earn a fortune and told his wife Oracene that they would have two daughters who would dominate the sport; how he and Oracene, both Jehovah's Witnesses, taught themselves a game alien to most people in the tough LA suburb of Compton; how he sent out press releases telling local papers that his God-fearing girls had to duck on the courts to avoid bullets from the gangs; how he withdrew the girls from school and junior tennis tournaments, taught them at home, and only allowed them to practise against adults till they were old enough to play them for real; how he gave up his job in a security firm to coach them full time; and how his audacious dream came true: at 17, Venus reached the final of the US Open at her first attempt, and two years later, Serena, also 17, won it.
It's also a story of love and rivalry – Venus and Serena live together in Florida, are best friends and the mightiest of rivals. Although Venus has won Wimbledon more times (five compared with three), Serena holds more majors (11 to seven). The Williams are the most successful sisters in the history of sport. Only six women have won more major singles titles than Serena. This from a girl who was written off as being too small as a young girl and too big as a woman. She's still only 27.
"Actually, I like to tell people I'm 26," she says. "And if I was on the street, I'd say 25." She giggles. She often giggles. We meet in Cincinnati, a city on the Ohio-Kentucky border that has seen better days. The sisters are here to play in a tournament as part of their build-up to the US Open.
Serena arrives in the lobby. She looks around her, a little lost. "Hi, I'm Serena," she says. She sounds shy. She's tall, 5ft 10in, with a big, beautiful face. Her feet are huge. I can't take my eyes of them.
The Williams sisters reinvented the women's game by playing the brutal power tennis associated with men. Venus has recorded the fastest woman's serve in history, while Serena batters opponents into submission. She is an unlikely mix of sex kitten and playground bully, turning up in outré outfits (black Lycra catsuit, white leather trench coat, denim mini-skirt and knee-high boots) and forcing the opposition from corner to corner of the court, until they collapse exhausted. There is no greater sight in tennis than Serena going to work. She glares at the ball, her bottom swinging like a metronome, her muscles bright as her earrings. The way she destroys players verges on the sadistic – slow strangulation rather than the quick bullet to the head Venus delivers. Tunde used to say, "You beat that girl like she stole something. What did she steal of yours?"
We're sitting on a bench in front of the hotel. An SUV passes, and Serena eyes it enviously. "I wanna get a new car, but I'm not used to spending money." You're tight? "I'm tight, yeah," she says in her best Mockney. "I'm so frugal, you wouldn't believe it." Why? "Growing up, my Mom and Dad were so much, 'Don't be like the average athlete, and have all this money and spend it all.' And I always like to want something. I don't want to have everything." She's tossing up the pros and cons of a new car, and hits on a solution: "I'm not going to buy a new car until I win something."
But it's barely a month since she won Wimbledon. "I know! And I didn't treat myself then."
"D'you want something small, or a flash car?"
"Yeah small, like an SUV." She giggles. "Well, you know, everyone has an SUV these days."
Serena took away more than £1m for winning the singles and doubles, upping her career earnings to over $25m. Her sponsorship deal with Nike is worth $40m. Then there's the acting career (she has appeared in ER and Law & Order); the fashion range (called Aneres, Serena backwards); the school she has opened in Africa; the screenplay she has written; and now her autobiography. She says it was important for her to give an honest account of her life because, since Tunde's death, she has not been as open as she should have been. "It opened up a lot of doors I left closed to the public and to myself."
There are so many misconceptions about her and the family, she says, and she wanted to put them right. "People see me on the court only as a superhero, grunting and winning. They think you're a robot and I'm not."
Serena grew up in a poor family rich in love, faith and ambition. Richard told his daughters they had to write out their dreams. "He'd say if you fail to plan, you're planning to fail." The five daughters (two from Oracene's first marriage) slept in the one bedroom, and Serena, the youngest, curled up with a different sister every night because there were only four beds. She was closest to Venus, just a year older. She adored her, was in awe of her, jealous of her, wanted everything she had and more.
"If we were in a restaurant, my dad would make me order first because I'd always order what Venus ordered. I still do it. He wanted me to have a mind of my own." Even that didn't work. "When she ordered, I'd change my mind and get the same thing." If Venus had been a mathematician, she says, she probably would have been, too.
Didn't it annoy Venus? No, she says, nothing does. "On court she doesn't get angry, doesn't crack rackets like some of us do. She's so relaxed. If I beat her, she isn't angry."
You should have swapped names, I say. She grins. "I know, I'm so not serene." When Serena was eight, she played in her first tournament and was beaten by Venus in the final. Venus won a gold cup, and Serena was devastated she had to make do with the silver. Venus told her she preferred silver to gold and they swapped trophies. It's the only trophy she still keeps by her bedside, she says.
Did you want to be Venus? "Yes. She was perfect, she was thin, she always got straight As, everything came so easy for her. I did everything I could to be Venus. I felt like the ugly duckling."
Oh, come off it! She sneezes, then snorts her snot back up her nose. "Phfffffffffff. Well, thanks but... I got my butta face on today."
Your what? "My butta face – everything looks good butta my face. Hahahaha! I have a good excuse. I don't feel well." She's worried she's coming down with flu.
Little sister syndrome, she says, spurred her on. When they were growing up, the press showed an interest, but they didn't believe there could be two champions in the one family, whatever Richard Williams told them. So they'd interview Venus, and Serena would tag along, but there was rarely space for the both of them in the articles. The funny thing is, she says, they were right, in a way. She wasn't that good a player back then – she was tiny, and all she could hit were dainty lobs.
A few years ago, when they were established as the two best players in the women's game, Venus said they should study fashion. "When she forced me to go to college, we'd take the same class and she'd always do better. It was like, earggggh!" Her scream of frustration is every bit as loud as the on-court grunt. She lets one more go for good measure. "Earggggh! Why you always better than me? If I had two kids of the same sex, I don't think I'd put them in the same sport or same thing. I obviously won't be as hard on my kids – just because the times have changed."
She stops. Look, she says, her parents were strict, but they were fair, always gave them the choice. And, she stresses, her mother was just as involved in the tennis as her father.
Serena says the biggest misconception is about her father, but accepts that he's partly responsible for it. "My dad is the nicest guy you'll ever meet, and the easiest going." The assumption that they were bullied into the game is simply not true. "My dad really is a genius to get me and my sister in tennis. Not only that, but he negotiated Venus's first contract, which was the biggest female contract ever signed. That was pure genius. He did my contract with Puma, and that was genius. My dad is a marketing mastermind." By the time Serena was nine, Richard had raised enough money from sponsors to move the family to the safer and more tennis-friendly Florida.
She thinks people tend to criticise rather than credit him for his achievement, and she doesn't understand why. "When, at Wimbledon, he was jumping up and down, I would have done the same thing if two of my kids were in the final. My dad was born in Lousiana – segregation, racism galore – and he goes from that into producing not one but two champions. And then they think he's tough. And that's not him at all."
She says I'd be surprised if I met him. A few minutes later I do – and I am.
It's the first time they've seen each other in Cincinnati. He speaks to her with great tenderness.
"How are ya, darling? I love you baby."
"I love you, too, Daddy.".
Venus and Serena developed a reputation for being remote. Despite their success, they were not truly loved by America. At Indian Wells in 2001, after Venus pulled out of the semi-final against her sister because of injury, the whole family was booed when Serena played the final. Neither sister has played Indian Wells since.
Serena says they have kept to themselves for a number of reasons. "I think it was the race, the Jehovah's Witness and just not joining in with other people. The Bible says a bad association spoils useful habits. Also, when I first came on the tour, I'd see Steffi Graff, Monica Seles, Pete Sampras, observe them, and you didn't see them with everyone else. So immediately I was like, I'm going to be like that. The people who are working to be the greatest have this extra focus. And I have a sister on tour who I'm best friends with."
It's only recently that she realised she had a reputation for being tough. "I was playing team tennis and this girl was, like, 'I can't believe how nice you are, you're so cool, and I heard you were super mean.'" She thinks it's funny. "It's fine. Let them keep thinking I'm mean."
Before every match she writes herself Post-it notes and attaches them to her racket cover. They range from statements about the power of self-belief, God and African-American history, to reminders to bend her knees and not to hit so hard, to simple statements of fact mixed with pseudo logic (you have won more majors than Venus, therefore you will beat her).
She was only 20 when she won the grand slam – the ultimate achievement in tennis. The other day they showed a Classic Williams Week on television and Serena couldn't quite believe the early years. "You see me playing Venus in 99, and the commentator was, like, 'Serena Williams, I really like her second serve, she's going to be a good player.' It was so surreal. And that year I ended up winning the US Open. I was on the way to greatness, and you could see the way I was hitting and everything about me was just super cool."
Her fall was every bit as dramatic as her rise. After Tunde died, Serena won only one major tournament in four years. She suffered horrendous knee injuries, and appeared more interested in Hollywood and fashion than in tennis.
In May 2006, Chris Evert wrote an open letter to Serena in Tennis magazine, saying that she could be the greatest woman player and she was betraying her talent. Two months later, Serena was ranked 140th in the world. Martina Navratilova also criticised her for squandering her gift.
She never responded to the attacks. "I thought she was entitled to her opinion," Serena says with deliberation. But the onslaught devastated her. "Before, I didn't really talk about other people, and since then I've done it less, because you don't know what's going on behind closed doors."
She says the barrier was set higher for her and Venus. "It has never been said about Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters or Martina Hingis, and those other girls who dropped by the wayside. Maybe they thought I had more talent."
This seems to be why she has written her memoirs: to put the record straight. While she told the press that she was injured, and much of the time she was, she was also beset by depression. She says there was the initial shock of Tunde's death, then a delayed reaction. "It was a very difficult time in my life." She blinks, and apologises. "I still get teary-eyed talking about it."
Yetunde Price, who worked as the personal assistant to Venus and Serena, was 31 when she died. She was a registered nurse, and had had three children with an LA gang member when she was young. She left him, and moved into a nice house in a safer area. But she never quite transcended her background. Shortly before she died, she took up with another gang member, who was driving the car in which she was killed. The bullets had been meant for him.
The night she died, her mother phoned Serena at 3am to say she couldn't get hold of Tunde and she was worried. Serena told her that she was sure everything was fine and she was probably asleep. "But I have this sick sixth sense, which I hate, and it wouldn't leave me alone. I called her house, and a lady answered screaming and crying. And I had to tell my mom and everyone. My sister Lyn was with me, and I had to tell her and she lost it. So I had to be the strong one." Worst of all, she had to tell Tunde's children.
For a while she played on, acted as if nothing was wrong, and then she lost it.
"I didn't leave my house for weeks. I didn't talk to anybody. It was hard on my sisters, because when you're used to talking to somebody every day and you just don't talk to them, and they want to help you but you don't want to accept help... It's not easy." The only trips she made were to Stan's Donuts for comfort food. She became bigger and bigger.
Did she realise she was having a breakdown?
"No," she says. "If I did, I don't think it would have been a breakdown. When you have a breakdown, it's about denial. It was for me."
Gradually she clawed her way back. Three factors helped her, she says. First, she saw a therapist. Second, she went to Africa to search out her family's roots, and opened a school in Kenya, which felt better than any tennis triumph. She visited the slave castles, which put her problems into perspective. She told herself that if previous generations had survived the terrible sea journey to America and then slavery, she could survive this. And finally, there was Australia, the yelp of anguish, and the promise she made to herself that she wouldn't be beaten. Before the final, her motivational Post-it notes simply said "Tunde". Victory was almost an exorcism.
Tunde's death also put tennis into context. She had always known it was just a game (in 1997, Richard Williams told the New York Times he hoped his daughters would be done with tennis by 23/24, because "I don't want a couple of gum-chewing illiterates on my hands") and this reaffirmed it. "There is more to life than hitting a ball over a net into a box," she says.
Now the important thing was to work out if it was a game she still wanted to play. "All my life I'd woken up to tennis, tennis, tennis. Even if I don't go to practise, I'm thinking about it all day. And to have it on your mind for 24 years is a long time. So that's what I was questioning. Is this something I really love. Is it something my dad wanted me to do? Is it something I'm doing cos Venus is doing it?" She concluded that her absence had rekindled her passion for tennis, and decided to live by a simple rule. When she fell out of love with the game, she'd quit. When she didn't fancy a tournament, she wouldn't play. But whenever she did compete, she'd give her all.
Look at Cincinnati, she says, there's nothing to do here, it's not her kind of place, but she's happy to be here. She flashes her yellow fingernails at me. "I've got my nails done, I'm ready." Her toenails have also been painted yellow for the occasion. I'm still staring at her feet.
Can I ask a personal question?
What size shoes do you wear.
"Size 10." Venus takes an 11.
She looks so much fitter than she did a couple of years ago. I ask how much she weighed at the Australian Open in 2007. She grins. "You mean when I was super-thick?" Pardon? "You heard me, Moooooo! How did I move so fast? I haven't stepped on the scale in about 15 years. If I step on a scale, I won't eat for five months."
After Tunde died, she found her faith challenged. "When you don't go to your Christian meetings, it takes its toll. I wasn't going because I never left my house and instead of taking comfort in what I should have done, which is reading Bible scriptures, I didn't. But I learned that I could help others to say this isn't the right way. How do I know? Because I've experienced it."
Now, she says, she's ready to go out and spread the word. "I want to knock on people's doors and preach. But I also meet a lot of people on planes and in restaurants, and you can preach with them or place some literature with them.
In a discreet way? "A discreet but honest way. We're dealing with serious concerns like what is the world coming to? Everything is going downhill in terms of the economy, and the green stuff. What's going to happen to this world? In the Bible it talks about how God's going to restore the world to a paradise, and God is someone who keeps his promises, Jehovah says he would never destroy this world, so if you believe in the Bible, those things are comforting to know."
It's amazing how easily she slips between the dizzy and the God bothering.
As a Jehovah's Witness, she explains, she doesn't celebrate birthdays or Christmas, and is not allowed to vote. Why not? "Are you familiar with the Bible?"
"Not as much as I should be," I say.
"It's fine, it's awesome, you can always learn. So we don't get involved in politics. Christ said I am no part of this world, so we're trying to be Christ-like and follow his example by being no part of this world."
We're flicking through pictures of her friends. She becomes surprisingly coy when I ask if she is dating the rapper Common. "I may or may not be." Is he Mr Right? She ums and ahs, and says she hopes so because she doesn't fancy starting again from scratch.
Are you living with Common? She looks shocked. "Oh no, I don't live with people unless I'm married."
She's not sure who she will marry, but she knows the date. "I'm getting married on my sister's birthday. Tunde's. I thought that would be a nice day."
Tunde is at the heart of much of her conversation.
She's flicking through more photos on her phone when she comes to a couple of cute dogs. Who are they? "Ah, that's Jackie, and that's Laurelai. They're here."
She taps a bag at her side, and out jump two tiny dogs – a jack russell and Maltese terrier. "They've been napping. Laurelai be nice. You're so cute. Imisshyou, Iloveyousomuch, you're so cute. OK, Grandpa's gonna walk you. Momma loves you, girl."
"Do you always talk baby language to Laurelai?"
"She's not very smart," she whispers. "This is the smart one."
Now her voice is mature. "This is Jackie. Hello Jackie. Girls, get in your bag till Momma can watch you."
How old are they?
"I lie about their age as well. Jackie I'll say is seven."
Actually, she has had Jackie since she first won the US Open 10 years ago.
The sun is going down, but it's still hot. An SUV passes. Sascha, with whom she practises, puts his head out of the window. "Are you hungry? We want to go to China City Buffet."
"Who's we? Where's V?"
"V's just parked right there," Sascha says.
"Is Harold with her? I gotta say hi to Harry." Harry is Venus's dog. The three dogs live with the girls in Florida. "Is Venus going to China City?"
"I don't know."
"Well, if V goes, I'll go."
As they drive off, she bursts out laughing. "Oh gosh. Ahahahaha. Oh no! 'I'll wait to see if she goes.' I just keep doing it!"
Just as she's telling me how she used to be a punk rocker, and how she's obsessed with the band Green Day (she has bought five of their guitars on eBay), another SUV rolls up. This one contains Venus and her team. Serena flaps with excitement and runs to the car. Heyyyyyyyyyy! Hey, Harold. Ah miss ma Harryyyyyyyyyyy!"
Venus serenely shakes my hand and says hello.
I ask Serena if she regards herself as an extrovert or shy. "Both. I'm a real extrovert, but when I'm round someone new, I'm super shy." She knows something doesn't ring quite true. "Actually, I'm lying. The older I get, the more extroverted I get. I'm super extroverted."
After beating Venus at Wimbledon, she gave an interview in a T-shirt that read "Are You Looking At My Titles" across her chest. Was that one of her designs? "No, it's a Nike shirt.
It is because I have big titles." She giggles. "I have really big titles!"
She got the giggles again when she was reminded that Dinara Safina, who has yet to win a grand slam tournament, was the world's number one. Serena didn't say so explicitly, but she obviously thought the ranking system ludicrous.
So you took the piss out of her? "Well, I mean, hello! I'm not going to say anything mean, but she said she won in Madrid and Rome so deserves to be number one, and I was just thinking to myself, you keep your Spain and Italy, I'm going to go ahead and keep my slams. I just laughed."
Now she is desperate to retain the US Open and officially re-establish herself as the world's number one. As for her legacy, she'd like to be remembered as the tennis player who opened doors. She tells me she's opening another school in Africa and quotes one of her heroes. "There's a saying in Spiderman, 'To those whom much is given much is expected in return'. That's what his grandfather told him. Actually, it is in the Bible as well, but it was said different in the Bible."
But surely it's important for her to be remembered as a better player than Venus?
"Honest? Jackie get in the bag, girl. Obviously I want to win more than her, but we count them together." So will they be remembered together as a team? "I think so. I hope so. How else can we be remembered? To be a part of that is super cool. I mean, we're the Williams sisters, you know."