The Cerebral Nature of Venus Williams
How the Williams sisters and Eric Riley are changing the game
by Larry Platt
The message was left on my voicemail in the wee hours. "Come by the courts at the University at 10 this morning," Eric Riley said. "There’s something you’ll want to see."
It was early August, about three weeks and change before the U.S. Open, and something about the tantalizing nature of the invitation, the mystery of it, drew me to the University of Pennsylvania’s outdoor tennis courts at the appointed time. There was the 39-year-old Riley, a striking African American man (he was once engaged to Robin Givens), the former coach of Pam Shriver, Kathy Jordan, Lisa Raymond and the Jensen brothers.
At 6'3," he stood at the net, where, in the most compact of motions, he methodically blocked back a torrent of groundstrokes that were whizzing off the racket of a bouncing blur of an opponent. Onlookers were flocking to the sight from their nearby offices, drawn by the high-pitched grunts coming from the court. Again and again, there Riley stood, silent, volleying back the bullets launched by this faceless dynamo of energy.
As I got closer, all of it – the gawking crowd, the on-court intensity – made sudden sense when I recognized who that was scurrying around the baseline. Martina Navratilova was hitting with her friend Riley, but this was no social call. She was working out. And working, and working, and working. She was tuning up for the Open, where she’d play doubles and mixed doubles.
For the next couple of hours, she’d rarely pause for a breather, her shirt soaked, muscles rippling. She even started to play to the crowd of slack-jawed onlookers. "Remember, nobody on their death bed ever said I should have done more paperwork and played less tennis!" she said.
During a Gatorade break, she told Riley’s assistant, a college player, that this type of workout was standard fare for her when she was number one in the world – followed, every day, by an hour of cardio and an hour of weightlifting. Riley looked at his pupil and only had to utter one word: "See?"
Riley, who tells his players that the most important part of a tennis player is the part you can’t see – the heart – would try and impart a similar lesson in work ethic to his newest acolyte a few weeks later. Just before the Open, he was hired to coach Alexandra Stevenson, the 19-year-old who had burst upon the scene during the 1999 Wimbledon fortnight when, as a qualifier, she made it all the way to the semifinals – an unheard of feat. That she’d been able to go from obscure high school graduate to the final four of the most pressure-packed, storied tournament in history was made all the more eye-opening by the fact that her streak took place while she was engulfed in a media maelstrom: Her tennis was in danger of being overshadowed by the secret of her parentage when it came out that she was Julius Erving’s daughter.
She lost to Lindsay Davenport that year, but not before charming the press with a sweet smile while watching her mother, Samantha, become the latest tennis parent to earn media scrutiny. Samantha made noise about racism and lesbianism on the tour, while Alexandra took care of business on the court.
"Nothing could have prepared Alexandra for what happened after that Wimbledon," Riley says today, after working with Stevenson for four days prior to her first round 6-3, 6-4 loss to Mary Pierce at the Open. "She was thrown into the lion’s den. After that, she was guaranteed to never have an easy tennis match again. That’s hard to deal with when you’ve just graduated high school."
Indeed, Stevenson came to Riley after compiling a dismal 9-22 record since her Wimbledon debut last year. Though she lost to Pierce last month, there were encouraging signs. In four days of preparation, Riley worked on only two facets of Stevenson’s game: her return of serve and her own big, but inconsistent, serve. Against Pierce, she missed only eight service returns and served at 62 percent. Were it not for a bevy of unforced errors, she would have upset the No. 4 seed.
Riley is mulling going on the road with Stevenson next year, so taken is he with her potential. "Alexandra has the best service motion in the world," he says. "She’s got the game’s hardest serve, but has to learn location and spin." He pauses. And then he says the one thing that every tennis coach has said, the one thing few ever find. "She can be the real thing. Top five talent."
Changing the face of tennis
It started with a paper plate in 1969. That’s how Eric Riley knew he’d be a professional tennis player. He was just nine years old and living in the suburbs of Philadelphia when he’d gone to a tennis match at Philadelphia’s Spectrum. There, he saw someone who looked like him kick ass on a tennis court, someone with dark skin, slightly kinky hair and a fragile build that masked a fiery zeal. He saw Arthur Ashe. And when Ashe kindly signed his paper plate, the kid was hooked.
Over the years, Ashe would serve as something of a mentor to Riley, pushing education – and not athletics. Ashe was why Riley eschewed the big-time scholarship offers and attended the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, where he was captain of the tennis team while majoring in Oriental Studies.
After a stellar collegiate career, Riley decided to buck the odds and try the professional satellite tour. "Once I had some good results on tour, Arthur had some encouraging things to say, but he was always more concerned that I think about my future," says Riley, whose suburban Philadelphia home contains signed bound copies of Ashe’s history of the African American athlete, A Hard Road to Glory. In seven years on the tour, Riley peaked at No. 270 in the world, beating David Pate, then ranked 18th in the world, and David Wheaton in Hawaii.
As a coach, Riley has been more successful. In fact, he’s the first African American since Ashe captained the U.S. Davis Cup squad to coach marquee white players, having guided top-five singles player Pam Shriver to the 1991 U.S. Open doubles title. Raymond reached her highest singles ranking under Riley’s tutelage in 1997 (15th), and won the U.S. Open mixed doubles trophy in 1996.
Of late, he’s amassed an up-and-coming crew of tennis talent in Philadelphia, although, like their coach, they don’t look like tennis players. His students include 16-year-old African American Frankie Green and Asian Chelsea Glynn, also 16, who moved to Philly from Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Riley.
Riley, who was once approached by a fellow named Richard Williams when Williams was in search of a coach for his two pre-teen prodigies, believes that tennis is just now starting to change, to become open to new and darker skin tones. He sees it at tournaments now, when African American families fill the stands to see the Williams sisters.
But he knows that such change is slow and incremental; last year, for instance, at the Advanta Championships in Philadelphia, little black girls with beads in their hair were everywhere to be found in the audience during Venus Williams’s match. But when the final pitted Martina Hingis versus Davenport, the crowd again seemed all-white and country club.
That’s why Alexandra Stevenson can be so important; Riley knows that if he decides to go on the road with her and she makes it back to the elite, such an accomplishment can build on the goal instilled in him by his mentor, Ashe: To change the face of tennis.
The stereotypes still exist, of course. We saw them at Wimbledon, when Chris Evert talked about Venus Williams’s "natural athletic talent," characterized Martina Hingis as "smart," and conjured up memories of Howard Cosell’s infamous "little monkey" remark when she observed that Williams was "playing like a caged animal." Indeed, prior to the Open’s semifinal match between Venus Williams and Hingis, announcer Dick Enberg set up the battle thusly: "It’s the power of Williams versus the cerebral nature of Hingis."
"I remember in the ‘60s and ‘70s, how it was believed that black men couldn’t quarterback a football team because we weren’t cerebral enough and didn’t have leadership qualities," says Riley, when I tell him of Enberg’s remark. "That wasn’t true, and everybody knows it now. But football had a Doug Williams, a Randall Cunningham. Tennis still hasn’t had to deal with a lot of African Americans excelling in the sport."
Riley knows that the Williams sisters weren’t born already in possession of a tennis gene. Interestingly, John McEnroe knows this, too. During the Open, he was the lone voice – in contrast to the likes of Enberg, Tracy Austin, and Mary Carillo – to acknowledge that they’ve gotten where they are due to their work ethic, a trait normally assigned to the white athlete. (Think Larry Bird in contrast to Michael Jordan; both spent equivalent amounts of time in the gym, but which was depicted as a "workmanlike, lunch-pail gym rat" and which as a "natural athlete"?)
During one of Venus Williams’s matches, McEnroe said: "Venus works extremely hard at her game. The other day, she played Tauziat three tough sets, then played a doubles match and then was out on the practice court that night – all in the same day."
Why was this not mentioned sooner? Why did it take an aside from McEnroe – who has always been progressive on matters of race, once turning down $1 million to play an exhibition at Sun City in South Africa because of his opposition to apartheid – to remind us that what we see from black athletes isn’t easy?
In fact, Riley marvels at the cerebral nature of the Williamses’ respective games. They play with an all-out, aggressive abandon that is the product of the triumph of mind over matter. They go for their shots, aiming for the lines without regard to circumstance: a conscious, thought-out strategy, when the natural tendency is to tighten up and play it safer.
Against Hingis and Davenport, Venus actually played smarter than her opponents, using her exceptional speed to run down shots and hit aggressively defensive shots in reply. The result was that both Hingis and Davenport would have to hit three or four scorching shots from deep in their own court, often on the run – each one a winner against any other opponent – just to win one point. She forced them into errors.
"That’s what Alexandra and I talk about," Riley says. "How you don’t have to go for winners on every shot. How tennis is about drawing mistakes from your opponents."
Indeed, Riley sees the Williamses’ success as an inherently cerebral one. As he sees it, putting your talents to productive use is an intellectual endeavor. After all, there are plenty of players with talent – Stevenson is still one – who have yet to master the nuances of the game. But he also recognizes something else in the Williamses, something he’s also trying to nurture in Stevenson: the aggressiveness of the African American athlete.
"In every sport we enter in large numbers, we change how it's played and coached," Ashe wrote in A Hard Road to Glory. "Be it Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson changing the idea of celebration in football to how Black players changed the use of speed in baseball. Within five years of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major leagues, Blacks took over the stolen base category and made it a weapon of intimidation it hadn’t been since the Ty Cobb era. We’re used to playing an in-your-face game."
It’s a style born of being locked out. When Riley was on the tour, countless white players, content to stay on the baseline, would ask him why the game’s few black players all played the same serve-and volley-style. He sensed then, and believes now, that the answer has something to do with environmental determinism.
"Coming up, you just knew that a passive person of color wouldn’t make it," he says. "To get to the top in a white dominated sport – or whatever field you’re in – you just have to work harder and be more driven than the next guy. You know this coming in."
And, as Ashe illustrates, that in-your-face style is smart in and of itself, because it can be wielded as a weapon, as lethal as a crosscourt forehand. A case in point was on display at the Open. The "alliance" between Hingis and Davenport – who pledged to each other that they’d stand in the way of an all-Williams final – had something to do with race; after all, no two players had ever conspired together to prevent a Hingis-Davenport final. (And Hingis and Davenport, at least prior to Venus Williams’s Open win, were ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively).
It was revealing of just how deep into their opponents’ psyches the Williamses had traveled. Talk about intimidation: Before they were even scheduled to play the Williamses, Davenport and Hingis were fretting about the eventuality.
And, then, once play began between Hingis and Venus Williams, Venus sent some clear signals during Hingis’s first service game. She swatted her first three service returns with all her might, standing inside the baseline. The balls careened wildly wide and long, but the point had been made and it was reminiscent of Patrick Ewing’s goaltends against North Carolina to start the 1982 NCAA championship game. It said, "Don’t take your shit in here." When Venus started rolling and hitting her surging forehand swinging volleys – maybe now the most intimidating shot in all of tennis, recalling Ashe’s prediction of how black athletes change the game – the upset was on.
When he was on tour, Eric Riley had to withstand racism. Of course, he has to withstand it to this day, too, as on those all too frequent days that he gets pulled over in his BMW and asked, "Whose car is this?"
But on tour, he had to train himself to turn the other cheek. It wasn’t that he was Gandhi-like or taking the moral high ground when, for instance, during one match, his German opponent called him the n-word. No, he knew enough from the example set by Arthur that it was simply smart, as a tennis player, to stay focused.
"That guy wanted to take me out of my game, make me mad," he recalls. Noting that Alexandra Stevenson has heard her share of racial epithets, Riley says, "If players know they can bother a player by talking about that player’s race, they’ll do it. This is war."
So has he spoken to Stevenson about race? No. "Alexandra’s battles are about Alex versus the ball," he says. "Throw that race stuff out the window, man. That’s a distraction. Keep your eyes on the prize."