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
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) </FONT>