Venus and Serena Williams have broken the mold (Tennis Magazine)
From the October 2002 issue of TENNIS Magazine
Venus and Serena Williams have broken the mold just by being themselves. There's a photograph by the great black visual artist Carrie Mae Weems in which a lone black man is seated at a table, smoking a cigarette, a single lamp shining on him, a tape recorder at his side. The voice of the tape recorder is given by the caption, which is also the title of the piece: "Jim, if you choose to accept, the mission is to land on your own two feet." Weems is highlighting the notion that being a black person in America is an adventure that can have all the danger of the life of the G-Men of Mission: Impossible, even though the daily challenge is merely to maintain your balance.
This, I imagine, is the situation Richard Williams faced two decades ago when he began his climb into tennis in Compton, Calif., the very bottom of the lowest valley, with two little pig-tailed girls who had never hit a ball in their lives.
I imagine Richard, alone, behind a table, a single lamp shining, the caption saying: "Rich, your mission is to go into the heart of America, where they keep the most important trophies from the most august tennis tournaments and, armed with just two girls, escape with the trophies and the cash that goes along with winning them and, of course, without any of you losing your mind. (If you succeed in New York, similar missions in Melbourne, Paris, and London will follow.)"
Now that's mission impossible.
And yet it happened. The story is so much a fairy tale it was a clichˇ the first time you heard it. It's something even Hollywood couldn't get away with. Black sisters from Compton go out to the local tennis court with shopping carts full of balls. They get protected from bullies and bullets and learn to play tennis from a dad who learned from a book just a few days before. They refuse to play junior tournaments. They enter the pros perhaps too early, too cocky, too inexperienced, and yet they begin winning almost right away. There are some bumps on the road: some rude public comments; some flying beads causing trouble; a few weird matches between them. But both sisters climb steadily up the tennis charts until, as predicted by Dad years before, they're No. 1 and 2 in the world. So dominant they can only be stopped by each other.
Rocky wasn't that ridiculous.
Back in the sixties, when Diahann Carroll appeared on television in Julia, phones buzzed throughout Black America. In those days you just called everyone you loved to let 'em know a black person was on TV. Now, when Venus and Serena play the phone burns with calls from around the country, calls that say our girls are doing their thing yet again.
What makes them special? Once a friend called from Atlanta to put them in historical perspective. He pointed out the dichotomy between Jack Johnson, the flamboyant, coal-black-skinned heavyweight who ruled boxing from 1908 to 1915, and Joe Louis, champ in the '30s and '40s, who was the anti-Jack, a humble, expressionless assassin. This has been the divide between most iconic black athletes ever since: either they're polemicists with an aggressive social message or they're resolutely apolitical and non-threatening. Where Jackie Robinson silently shouldered the insults he received as America's first black major leaguer, Muhammad Ali was outspoken, standing up to the government when it wanted to draft him. Before the Williamses, black tennis was represented most famously by Arthur Ashe, a spiritual descendant of Dr. Martin Luther King, politically uncompromising but personally as smooth as soul music. Venus and Serena, though, have a warrior-like on-court demeanor and body language that suggests a post-Malcolm X black consciousness. They're not like Tiger Woods with his corporate smoothness and a persona intended not to offend anyone, not like Michael Jordan trying to transcend race. They're individual, they're candid, they're unafraid to grow up in public, to make mistakes, to do exactly what moves them simply because it does. You don't get the sense the Williams sisters spend time consulting image-shapers and media trainers. They're black, and they don't need to emphasize it, downplay it, or rise above it. They're Compton queens, and if it's possible to play tennis in a black way, they do.
Of course, the pioneer of international tennis by black folks was not a man, like Johnson and Louis, but Althea Gibson, a poor kid from the streets of Harlem who, like the Williamses, pushed the level of athleticism in the women's game to new heights. She won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in 1957 and 1958 when segregation kept her from playing at many of the nation's tennis clubs. Gibson refined her game thanks to years of support by the predominantly black American Tennis Association, winning its national championship 10 years in a row (1947 to 1956). In 1950, just three years after Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but four years before future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall presented the case that would end school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education, the ATA convinced the USLTA to allow Gibson into its most elite tournament, the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills, opening a door that would never close.
Indeed, this is a women's story as much as a black one. Because even with the foundation created by the ATA, the trail blazed by Althea, the road imagined by Richard, and the genes possessed by Venus and Serena, there would be no Williamses as we know them without their mother, Oracene. During the second week of the 2001 U.S. Open, Oracene and four of her daughters were sitting in the players' lounge talking to their friend, the football star LaVar Arrington. Arrington played for the Washington Redskins, their favorite team, but an underachieving squad that had a .500 record the previous season.
"What's your group mind-set?" Oracene asked him. "What do y'all think about on the field?"
"I don't know," Arrington said, off-balance. "We want to win."
"How about, 'don't lose,'" she said forcefully. "Just, 'I ain't losin'.'"
And there, in her tone, I could hear the roots of the daughters' killer will to win.
So is there a Williams TV movie in the future? Samuel L. Jackson, grizzled and a little bit crazy, could be Richard. Alfre Woodard, whose simplest gesture shows her to be as deep as the stillest rivers, and who could convincingly wear an orange afro wig, might play Oracene. Brandy has Venus' coltish grace, but we'd have to have a young Angela Bassett (or a 70's-era Pam Grier) to get Serena's chiseled body and athletic sex appeal right. We'll have Sidney Poitier as Ashe looking down from heaven, and the elder stateswoman of African-American acting, Ruby Dee, as Gibson, the Williams sisters' spiritual godmother.
Or better yet, how about a photograph? Oracene has been traveling to Africa lately to further tennis opportunities for Africans. But what if in her travels she comes upon a powerful spiritual leader and brings him back to America to resurrect the bodies of a few thousand slaves? In July they fly to Wimbledon to fill the seats around Centre Court on that last Saturday, when Venus and Serena once again compete for the title. How it would blow their minds to see two black girls play for the world's grandest tennis trophy and make millions playing a country-club game. We'll call Carrie Mae Weems in to shoot the scene: the resurrected slaves in the seats, Venus and Serena on the court, and, up in the friends box, Oracene sitting alongside old, gray Malcolm X, looking through thick glasses at tennis the way he would have played it. Now that's a picture.