Venus/Serena article: Selling The Sisters -
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Venus/Serena article: Selling The Sisters

Selling the sisters

Venus and Serena Williams spent December playing each other on a McDonald's-sponsored tour of the US. Now, on the eve of the Australian Open, Tim Adams, who has met and interviewed both sisters, asks whether either can ever again win a major title when both appear to be such willing prisoners of corporate America

Sunday January 9, 2005
The Observer

When Richard Williams gave his first interview to the New York Times, in 1997, he said that he hoped his daughters, Venus and Serena, would be 'out of tennis by 23, 24 years old. Actually, I prefer retirement at 19, but Venus says: "No, Daddy, 23, 24".' Once they had retired, having briefly and spectacularly dominated their sport, they should, he suggested, spend 'the first six months of the year travelling round the world, and then go full-time to college. By 26, [they] can start setting businesses up.' By 35 they could be producing grandchildren for him, new prodigies. 'When they've finished their tennis careers,' Williams added, 'I don't want a couple of gum-chewing illiterates on my hands.' He won't have that, certainly. But Richard Williams's words are, not for the first time, beginning to look just a little like prophecy. Venus Williams is now 24, her sister Serena is 23. It is 18 months since Serena won a grand slam event and a year longer since Venus threatened to do the same. What looked likely to be a decade of dominance by the sisters is beginning to seem like little more than a three-year historical moment.

That Serena, in particular, should be going into the Australian Open, which starts on 17 January, without a major title to her name is remarkable. I remember talking to her just before her last Wimbledon triumph in 2003. Sitting outside in the sun in a fluorescent orange T-shirt, she looked and sounded like an irresistible force. Give or take the erratic Belgians, the only genuine rival to her pre-eminence of the sport was her sister, she suggested, whom she had recently defeated in four consecutive grand slam finals. Then, it looked to her and to any other observer to be mostly a question of how long she cared to go on - five years? Ten years? - and how many titles would be enough. Eighteen months on, having only recently secured numerous long-term endorsement contracts that will make her the richest woman in the history of the sport, it is odd to think that Serena must be wondering just a little whether she might have to settle for the six grand slam titles she has already won, and no more.

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The story of that 18 months is the bleakest chapter in the Williams's fairy tale, that astonishing narrative of the 'ghetto Cinderellas' crashing the 'lily-white world of tennis' that was scripted for them by their father before they were born. The chapter began in September 2003 with the horrific murder of their beloved elder sister, Yetunde Price, in a gangster shooting in Los Angeles. Yetunde was, they said at the time, 'our nucleus and our rock. She was personal assistant, confidant and adviser, and her death leaves a void that can never be filled.'

The sisters both took time out of the game to grieve and then, having lost some of their conditioning, were beset with injury when they tried to return. As their friend and sometime mentor Zina Garrison, herself a former Wimbledon finalist, points out, being out of an individual sport such as tennis creates unexpected problems. When you return it is often to a different game entirely. That was proved forcibly in the case of Monica Seles following her on-court knife attack. It has been proved again by Venus and Serena. 'I think the hardest part about it,' Garrison says, 'is that first and foremost, you have to realise you're not where you left off and neither are the people that you left before you were there, because they're moving on, they're getting more experience. The game is moving on. You have to do things a little bit differently than you did to get to where you were. Eight or nine months away from any sport is going to take you out for a while. And that was the case for Venus and Serena.'

This observation was most graphically demonstrated at Wimbledon last year. What was extraordinary about watching Maria Sharapova, a 17-year-old Russian, win the final was just how easily Serena Williams was overpowered. The harder she hit, the louder she grunted and screamed, the more she tried to assert her ferocious body language, the faster the ball came back to her. As the match wore on she came to realise what all dominant champions realise sooner or later: she had been caught up. This sense of fallibility will have been only reinforced by Sharapova's comeback in the Masters final in November, when Serena was undone by a stomach injury and could not will herself to finish off the young Russian.

If the accelerated progress of their new Russian rivals was one result of the Williams sisters' enforced lay-off, the psychological legacy is more difficult to fathom. In some ways, it was hard not to see the random murder of their sister, in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, as a gruesome fulfilment of another of their father's prophecies. Richard Williams, the son of a sharecropper from Louisiana, claimed he had initially deliberately moved his family to Compton, 'so that they could see all the bad that could happen to you if you don't get an education'. He saw tennis as the most realistic chance for his five daughters to escape the ghetto.

When Serena and Venus began to take that chance, at nine and 10 years old, the family moved to Florida and Richard Williams built up the myth of where they had come from for marketing purposes. He kept his daughters out of competition, but circulated a regular newsletter to corporations and sponsors advising them of the girls' progress and reminding them of what they had already achieved. In one of these newsletters he wrote: 'Venus and Serena were shot at by the gang members (the Bloods) while practising tennis, and they (the girls) hit the ground. Mr Williams was beaten up several times... After about seven months, he had earned [the gangsters'] respect. He became better known as "King Richard"... Master and Lord of the ghettos in Compton, Ca. By 1989, Mr Williams had helped gang members go back to high school, helped parents understand the importance of family and education, helped parents stop prostituting their daughters.'

When I spoke to both Venus and Serena before Yetunde's murder they tended to smile a bit knowingly at some of this story, pointing out that they had moved from Compton to Florida when they were very young and thereafter attended a good private school. 'And anyway,' said Serena, 'people get shot at everywhere these days.'

In fact, as Richard Williams knew, people get shot at far more often in Compton than almost anywhere else in the world. Yetunde Price was the 36th person murdered on those streets in 2003. And in many ways the facts of her life were the shadow of what her sisters' lives might have been.

She had not followed the family to Florida. She had stayed behind to have a son with a member of the Bloods gang called Jeffrey Johnson. Yetunde was with the boy's father for less than a year, leaving him after he was jailed for assaulting a policeman. She then took up with a man named Byron Bobbitt, who had drugs and firearm convictions. They had two children but Yetunde lived in fear of her husband, filing a police complaint in 1997 that read: 'Husband threatened me with a knife to my throat, stating he would kill me if I took his daughter away - and he also physically assaulted me.'

With the family's help she eventually left Bobbitt, moved to a smarter suburb, started a hairdressing salon. But Yetunde found it hard to leave Compton. When she was shot dead outside a house used by gangsters she was in a car with her boyfriend Rolland Wormley, himself on parole after convictions for drug-dealing and gun offences.

The legacy of the murder dragged on through the course of last year and no doubt had a draining effect on the family. There was a protracted criminal case against the two men who had allegedly fired shots at the car in which Yetunde died, both Crips gang members, and both were eventually acquitted on stubbornly split juries. There has also been a protracted ongoing court battle for custody of Yetunde's children waged by Venus and Serena's mother, Oracene, against Bobbitt, who was considered such a threat to the family that Oracene was protected by an armed guard in the Los Angeles courtroom.

In the way of tennis families, some of this drama has been played out at courtside. At last year's Australian Open, Oracene sat with five-year-old Jair, Bobbitt's son, who cheered his aunties on. One effect has been to draw the already tight family ever-closer together. A year on Serena could not talk at all about Yetunde's death except to say, 'I haven't really coped yet. I'm trying to figure out how to cope with it. But not a day goes by when I don't think of it and I try to make sure I talk to all of my sisters every single day.'

The Williams family have always done things their way, but the murder seems to have made them rely on each other even more. Caryl Phillips, the American-based novelist and cultural critic, has written a good deal about the sisters, and is a close observer of the trajectory of their careers. He believes Venus and Serena have never received popular acclaim in America, 'but that has not much to do with their race... Arthur Ashe, say, and Zina Garrison were and are tremendously popular with fans. It has more to do with the fact that they are perceived to have cut themselves off from everybody.'

'You can,' Phillips continues, 'feel it in the way they have set themselves apart from the social side of the tour. And you can feel it from the crowd when they play, in the way they seem to see this as entirely a family affair.' He sees this insularity as much as an article of faith - the Williams sisters are, like their mother, Jehovah's Witnesses - as an attitude of mind and one that acts as a barrier to their full acceptance.

Venus has been very direct about this. 'We believe in good association,' she said in 2001, 'that is association with fellow Jehovah's Witnesses, not becoming too involved with people that don't have the same beliefs and same values that we do. We go to meetings three times a week. They encourage us. I don't know if I can go house-to-house [evangelising]. But I'm thinking about that.'

Serena, meanwhile, has become a little more open about her faith since the death of her sister. In a long article for the evangelical magazine Guideposts in October 2004, she wrote about how she had now added a new weapon to her game. This weapon is prayer, which, she wrote, 'is as sure as my two-handed backhand. One rule in tennis is that every other game you switch ends of the court with your opponent. Every changeover, I bow my head, close my eyes. And I pray: "Help me stay strong out here. Help me stay calm and do my best. Thank you, Lord".'

Though she has been photographed out on the town with various men, Serena says she extends this faith to her private life. She told the Telegraph in the summer that 'we don't believe in dating unless you're ready to get married. I've never dated anybody. It's good to get experience under your belt but you should never get wild or go crazy. If I can't see myself with this person for life - I can't be bothered. I can't waste my time. I have some really good men friends but I believe in no sex before marriage. No fornicating. Stuff like that. I really believe in that. I mean, I'm not perfect. It's hard to live by the Bible standards but I'm really comfortable with me.'

Not only do the sisters believe themselves to be slightly apart from their opponents on court, but they have a sense, inculcated by their parents, that their opponents are wary of them. 'They don't even look at her,' Oracene Williams said of Venus when she first joined the women's tour. 'I think they're afraid of her. They want her to be their Stepin Fetchit [after the early Hollywood actor of that name, who played caricatured black roles].'

Oracene warned her daughters from the outset about some of the temptations they might face. 'They are in the locker room talking with these older women - undressed - who are lesbians,' she explained. 'The kids get caught up in something and think, "Maybe that's really me", when it's not. So, yeah, I taught Venus and Serena about that.'

Such attitudes have created a strong sense of self-reliance in the sisters, which is both a strength and a weakness in their game. One of the great advantages of Richard Williams's home-made coaching and sport psychology system, born of watching videos and laboratory tested on his daughters, was that they arrived on the tour with something new, an unpredictable game and a custom-made attitude. One of the negatives, according to tennis purists, is that technically their strokes were not quite correct, as they might have been had they, say, been doing drills at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida since they were seven or eight.

The technical flaws in venus's power game are often exposed these days when under the greatest pressure and she no longer quite has the conviction to bully her opponents into submission. Serena, too, has been advised recently by many observers of American sport to 'do a Tiger Woods' and have the courage to dismantle her game, take outside advice and regroove her strokes.

Her mother and father are apparently reluctant for this to happen. 'I'm their coach,' Oracene, who mostly travels with the girls and organises their practice, is apt to say. 'Their father and I taught them the right strokes. You might need a reinforcement on one stroke or another, but coaches should become obsolete after a while.'

The obvious time to make such reinforcements would have been in the brief close season that follows the end of the Masters Series and precedes the Australian Open this month. In this respect it was perhaps surprising to find that, far from going back to basics, or even resting her stomach injury, Serena spent much of that time fulfilling a commitment to McDonald's and playing exhibition matches against her sister. The McDonald's tour took in various cities for the charitable Ronald McDonald House Foundation, a commitment to which is part of their multi-million dollar contract with the fast-food corporation. Spectators who watched Serena play in Detroit, the week after her defeat by Sharapova, saw her wince every time she attempted to serve.

Such an attitude to their commercial responsibilities is one reason why Venus and Serena have earned more than $100 million (£52m) from endorsements in their relatively short careers. Neither sees any contradiction in putting her game on the line to further the sales of Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets to America's ever more sedentary and obese young population. One television ad saw the sisters compete for a packet of french fries on a variety of playing surfaces. 'To star in McDonald's commercials and packaging is really exciting for Venus and me,' Serena said in Detroit. 'We grew up eating McDonald's and never dreamed back then we'd see ourselves in their commercials and on their packaging.'

All top tennis players are seduced by the millions on offer to them from sponsors, but still it is tempting to see one factor in the sisters' relative decline as the triumph of style over substance. In December 2003 Serena signed a $60m endorsement deal with Nike, eclipsing the $40m her sister receives from Reebok. Nike signed her as not just a tennis player, of course, but as a global icon, a trademarked Nike Goddess. They encouraged her to assert her individuality on court, to 'just do it', to help to design her own outfits, without constraint from the perceived country-club stuffiness of the sport. She responded with an increasingly bizarre set of clothes, culminating in the knee-high boots, denim skirt and black studded top she wore for her US Open defeat in September.

The last person who Nike encouraged to push sartorial boundaries in this way was Andre Agassi in the early 1990s. He made headlines in those days more for his day glo undershorts and his shaggy perm than for his tennis. He saw himself as a Nike creation. 'We have grown up together,' he said of his sponsor. Oddly, it was when he started to worry less about how he looked - about how his image broke down barriers and sold lots of trainers - that he started to win grand slam titles.

Since Serena Williams signed with Nike she has not won a major tournament, which must be a source of some concern to the marketing executives in Portland who have signed her for the next 10 years. In some senses, perhaps, the branding people have only themselves to blame for this fact. The image-makers at Nike and Reebok who are constructing Venus's and Serena's 'personality' are keen to stress that they are not simply tennis players. They want their icons to be multi-dimensional, to suggest that their ambition and desire would make them winners in any walk of life, and that therefore by buying their logo you too can borrow some of that attitude. The first Nike ads for Serena showed her playing volleyball. McDonald's ran a campaign showing Serena on a film set, reflecting her desire to become a movie star, and Venus in a design studio, talking about her interior-design business.

As if believing this hype, Venus and Serena spend much of their interview time these days explaining that tennis is only a small part of what they are about and, in fact, with determination, they could probably have been equally successful in any walk of life they chose. It remains to be seen whether Serena will make it as an actress - her walk-on parts in cop shows have not so far had Martin Scorsese banging on her door - or a fashion designer ('like Armani or Versace'), or whether Venus can cut it as a designer. Bonnie Nathan, her business partner in her Palm Beach interiors venture, V Starr, explains brightly how Venus 'brings the unique attributes of a world-class athlete to the design field' in much the same way, you fear, as Frank Bruno brought the attributes of a world-class boxer to the pantomime field.

The pitch used by the branding executives in selling the sisters to the widest audience possible is pretty much the same one devised by Richard Williams in his newsletters all those years ago: do not recognise any limitations. McDonald's created a campaign for Venus and Serena about an 'African-American History Year' in response to a national 'African American History Month': 'My ancestors have opened far too many doors for me to only walk through one,' Serena was scripted to say. 'They fought to make strides in every industry and not just during February. Every day is an opportunity to reflect, inspire, give back, which is why I support McDonald's R 365Black.'

It is hard to imagine what an earlier black winner of a women's grand slam title, Althea Gibson, would have thought of such comments made so lucratively on behalf of a multinational company such as McDonald's. When Gibson was at the same stage as Venus and Serena in 1955, after 10 years of tennis and as the reigning French Open champion, her life had scarcely changed: 'I am still a poor Negress, as poor as when I was picked up off the back streets of Harlem and given a chance to work my way up to stardom...' she said. 'I have no apartment or even a room of my own. I have no clothes beyond those with which I travel around. And I like clothes. Unfortunately I have no gift for making them, and I can't afford many of the wide variety of cheap ready-to-wear American dresses which other American girls buy, then throw away after a few months. Mine have to do for a long time.'

Venus is strongly aware of how far she and her sister have come in this respect - the money is no doubt one measure of this - and was keen to dedicate some of her early victories to Gibson, who was in her eighties whenVenus won her first Wimbledon. 'It's really a privilege for me to win while [Althea] is still alive,' she said then. (Gibson died in 2003.) 'In her day people found it hard to see past colour. People still turn on their TV and see this black girl playing tennis and think, "What is this?". We're still doing something that hasn't been done very often.'

Serena, too, is happy to say that, as she told me when we met, she feels she is 'a black player 100 per cent. When I first came along I said I'm not playing for anybody, I'm just playing for myself. But in reality I know I'm playing for a lot of people. I'm playing for those little girls, who never watched tennis, who might say, "I want to be Serena Williams, I want to be Venus Williams", and I feel very proud to be taking on that responsibility.'

Whether his 'ghetto Cinderellas' will have changed 'the lily-white sport of tennis for ever', as Richard Williams believed they would, remains to be seen. The effect of any iconic individual takes half a generation to come through - the Swedes who followed Borg arrived nearly 10 years later. Looking at the tennis magazines in the United States Caryl Phillips says it is surprising, and encouraging, however, just how many black faces there are among players in the 14- and 15-year-old age groups. But even so he does not feel that the impact Venus and Serena have had will have broken down barriers. 'Tennis will never be a street sport; it is still very much a gated community, if you like. A few players can cross over and affect mainstream American culture, McEnroe obviously, but I don't think the sisters will have had the impact, say, of a Michael Jordan on the culture, or even an Arthur Ashe.'

This, Phillips says, is because their first loyalty is to each other and perhaps to their God. Even at the height of her powers, as reigning two-time Wimbledon and US Open champion, Venus was keen to distance herself from her success. When I spoke to her then she explained, candidly: 'I know for sure that all this is not the only thing in life. I know it's not the most important thing for me to win the most grand slams and be remembered in this world. I certainly don't have to win satellite tournaments here there and everywhere, I don't have to win at all.' Then, almost as an afterthought, she said: 'Although I do want to.'

There was a time when Venus would come off court singing at the top of her voice after a victory. Her favourite was 'Let the sideshow begin'. Her Mom and Serena would invariably join in from the stands: 'Hurry, hurry step right on in...' Richard Williams always told his girls that life off court was far more important than life on it and the events of the past couple of years have no doubt reinforced that view. We will begin to find out later this month whether the sideshow for Venus and Serena is actually about to become the main event.

· Tim Adams is the author of Being John McEnroe (Yellow Jersey Press)
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post #2 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 05:54 AM
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Tim Adams is the author of Being John McEnroe (Yellow Jersey Press)

What trash!! The article is written by the two bit writer who wrote McEnroes dumb ass book.

Originally Posted by AcesHigh
I'll say this in public once. I miss serena so much. Fed is my favorite player but no one does it like her.

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post #3 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 06:09 AM
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Originally Posted by harloo
Tim Adams is the author of Being John McEnroe (Yellow Jersey Press)

What trash!! The article is written by the two bit writer who wrote McEnroes dumb ass book.
That guy need to learn how to write good articles

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post #4 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 06:14 AM
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Originally Posted by harloo
Tim Adams is the author of Being John McEnroe (Yellow Jersey Press)

What trash!! The article is written by the two bit writer who wrote McEnroes dumb ass book.

It certainly is trash.
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post #5 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 09:09 AM
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post #6 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 01:56 PM
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I don't think this article is trash at all. There are elements of it (arguments, interpretations of facts, conclusions drawn) that I don't agree with but I find it a tremendously interesting and worthwhile read. I think in it Venus and Serena (and her family) emerge as complex and problematic personalities and human beings who've managed to get some things right and some things wrong in their lives. Most celebrities-- and Venus and Serena are no exception-- construct a public myth around them and this article attempts, not always successfully, to deconstruct that public myth. No doubt, it is largely critical and one-sided but that just makes me what to engage with it more.

Also, I am not bothered with criticisms of Venus and Serena because 1) some of the criticisms are fair or at least bear thinking about in a serious manner and 2) most importantly, I am not interested in worshipping perfect or idealised representations of Venus and Serena. I just like them--warts and all.
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post #7 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 03:46 PM
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HATERS, EAT THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"Such an attitude to their commercial responsibilities is one reason why Venus and Serena have earned more than $100 million (£52m) from endorsements in their relatively short careers."

-one of those "bad" Williams fans that everyone keeps talking about


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post #8 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 04:18 PM
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another moron who apparently doesn't follow the sport and doesn't realize that Serena, like so many players before her, suffered a debilitating injury and WAS NOT PLAYING for eight months of that time, while the other ten months she was playing on a shaky, rehabbing knee. He also apparently doesn't realize that it was only 18 months since Venus "threatened" to do so (Being in a final and going three sets WITH a groin /stomach injury is definitely "threatening") but she also had the first of a series of injuries.

Yes not all of the article is not criticism, but I am so tired of the usual cliches and unfounded judgements recycled by writers who don't know shit about the sport and what injuries mean to players ugh

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post #9 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 05:39 PM
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It's soooooooo one sided, it isn't a good article at all!!!!!!!!

Venus Venus

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post #10 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 11:00 PM
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The article is full of errors.

"Gibson, who was in her eighties whenVenus won her first Wimbledon"

Actually she was 72 in 2000when Venus won Wimbledon.

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post #11 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 9th, 2005, 11:09 PM
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I wish this guy had an e-mail address attached to this badly written article I would surely give him a piece of my mind.
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post #12 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 10th, 2005, 02:31 AM
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thanks to the new poster, stuffit, for pointing out a specific error. are there other specific inaccuracies that others noted? i don't know enuf about their family situation to know what's true and what's false and the Guardian/Observer is normally a very reliable source. if they have missed the mark on this story, folks should contact them with specific corrections (as opposed to blanket hate mail).

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post #13 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 10th, 2005, 11:18 AM
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The original post did not include the four comment pieces which accompanied the article in print which might provide the required 'balance'

The sisters expose tennis's racist heart

Martin Jacques
Sunday January 9, 2005
The Observer

We have never seen a phenomenon like the Williams sisters in tennis and I fear we never will again. They have lent tennis a quality that it never before possessed. Tennis grew up as a white middle-class game, epitomised today by the mystique - or, rather, pastiche - of Wimbledon. Class is woven into the fabric of sport: rugby and football remain worlds apart, the former a game of the City, Oxbridge and private schools, the latter a game of the masses. But if sport is linked with class, the same is true of race. Those mass sports with the lowest economic barriers to participation are, not surprisingly, the ones that have been most accessible to those of colour. A quarter of Premiership players are black: in contrast, every single Formula One driver has been white.

And so to tennis, a lily-white sport not only by dress code but also by skin colour. There have, of course, been exceptions, such as Arthur Ashe and Evonne Goolagong, but tennis, like golf, has been an overwhelmingly white preserve. The pressures to conform to the white norms are huge and it is understandable that many non-whites feel a powerful desire to do just that: even to the point of denying the racism that they experience. Not Venus and Serena, who, like Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith - who gave the Black Power salute on the podium after winning the 1968 Olympic 200 metres - have in their very own inimitable way and in a very different era competed on their terms. They have done this through celebrating, not denying, their colour and their culture. This is why tennis has found it difficult to accept them. In no sense can Serena and Venus be regarded as honorary whites: they are black and proud of it.

To the kind of white, middle-class audience that watches tennis and has no understanding of what it means to be black, this is an anathema. The spectators who booed Serena at the French Open semi-final in 2003 - and cheered opponent Justine Henin-Hardenne to the skies - expressed this incomprehension as rejection, a thinly veiled racism not dissimilar, if a little less crude and barbaric, to the behaviour of the Spanish crowd at the Bernabéu in November. I have watched the Williams sisters many times at Wimbledon and have never seen the crowd support them: polite applause, grudging respect, perhaps even quiet admiration, but nothing more. A discreet racism informs the behaviour of the white, middle-class crowd.

This is vehemently denied. When I wrote to this effect 18 months ago, the BBC's Oliver Scott reacted almost with apoplexy: how could a Wimbledon crowd, the epitome of fairness, that icon of Englishness, be guilty of racism? Football crowds maybe, but not Wimbledon.

This view is based on the idea that racism is a trait of the working class, not the middle classes. This is nonsense. What is true is that the middle classes have much less familiarity with those of colour in Western societies: the latter tend to be poorer and therefore occupy positions much lower in the social ladder, so live in different areas. Middle-class racism can be every bit as pernicious and often more ignorant, even if it comes class-coded and seemingly genteel. The sisters have not only raised the bar, they have also injected something quite different into tennis. It is perhaps too much to expect an overwhelmingly white corps of tennis correspondents, who have never experienced racism and whose knowledge of the world does not extend much beyond the court, to understand and acknowledge this. The sisters' singular achievement has been to bring to tennis a black culture that previously was almost entirely missing: in their style, their sense of fashion, their physique, their self-confidence and their flamboyance. And this is complemented by the presence, in the players' box, at most tournaments, of their family circle, an island of Afro-America in a white ocean. Venus and Serena are wonderful role models not only, and most obviously, for young black women, but for us all. Long may they reign.</FONT>

Go back to the satellites and learn how to umpire!
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post #14 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 10th, 2005, 11:19 AM
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Show me the money

Kwame Kwei-Armah
Sunday January 9, 2005
The Observer

The first thing I remember about their emergence was this enormous barrage of negativity surrounding their father. That certainly got me interested. I'm just about old enough to remember Arthur Ashe playing and in his day, the late 1960s and 1970s, the pressure was certainly on him to assimilate himself into a white middle-class world. You never got that with the Williams sisters. Black people took a tremendous rise from their example.

The other thing that immediately impressed me was how incredibly media-friendly they were. Some people have accused them of over-commercialising themselves, but no one says that about David Beckham or Jonny Wilkinson. In the acting profession, there used to be a saying that black actors have jobs, white guys have careers. I wonder if that distinction was still prevalent in the way some of the public viewed how the girls went about selling themselves.

You really have to hand it to Richard Williams. Not only has he proved to black people and the world that you can come from nothing and beat the rest, but he understands his daughters' place as a commodity in the market and how you can work the corporate world to your advantage. · Kwame Kwei-Armah's play, Fix Up, is currently running at the National Theatre

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post #15 of 24 (permalink) Old Jan 10th, 2005, 11:20 AM
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Daddy's girls

Ekow Eshun
Sunday January 9, 2005
The Observer

What interests me is how they have tried to define themselves beyond tennis. There is a clear attempt to present themselves in an iconic way, as specifically black athletes. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods went down this route before them, but only in a marketing sense. What makes the Williams sisters different is how they have achieved that iconic status in a cultural sense, too. The commercial is entirely conjoined with the cultural. That's not something you could have said about Arthur Ashe, for example. There's a knowingness to it all, as if tennis now serves to facilitate the construction of their identity.

I don't know whether Richard Williams is self-conscious about this, but when you see him sitting in the front row, cheering on his daughters, you have the feeling that he's become part of the overall brand, too. He reminds me of Matthew Knowles, father of Beyoncé, who has tried to shape his daughter's brand identity. He is the guarantor, the link with family and home. When you put all that together, there's no room left for any trouble to intrude. I'm as fascinated by the construction of that image as I am by the reality, whatever that is. · Ekow Eshun's first book, Black Gold of the Sun, will be published by Penguin in June

From the baseline

Bonnie Greer
Sunday January 9, 2005
The Observer

My sister in America first told me about these ghetto princesses and how the tennis authorities had tried to dismiss their dad, Richard, because he wasn't part of the traditional club set. Apparently, the girls weren't very popular in the dressing room either until he took more of a back-seat role. I can remember weeping when Venus won Wimbledon because it was such a wonderful moment for black people.

Before that, there had been a dismissive attitude among the press as far as women's tennis was concerned, as if it was just a nice little game for girls in frilly lace skirts to play. But when Venus and Serena came along, they were proper athletes. They were also about show business and that was something that couldn't be said of their male counterparts, with the exception of Andre Agassi. Now, you hear about them disappearing into the Hollywood sunset. That would be a shame since it could affect the popularity of women's tennis. But, having reached the goals that they set themselves - which, let's not forget, would have been impossible for almost anyone to accomplish, irrespective of race - they have earned the right to follow their latest dreams. · Bonnie Greer is a freelance writer and broadcaster

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