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March 16, 1997
Daddy's Big Test
By PAT JORDAN
e putters along the palm-shaded walk of the Breakers West tennis club in a golf cart. Birds chirp in the palms under a yellow sun and a blue sky. His wife, wearing a sweatshirt with a cartoon figure on the front, walks behind, bouncing a basketball. His two daughters, in tennis whites, are carrying racquets and giggling. He is wearing tennis whites, too. He is a burly, hunched-over black man in his 50's with a grayish beard, smoking a thin brown cigarette and clutching a cellular phone. He stops at an umbrella-shaded white metal table between two green tennis courts.
He hugs the two black men in tennis white. "Brother Brown. Brother Gbedey." To a white man in blue tennis shorts, he says, "Hi, Dave." To another white man in a Hawaiian shirt, he says, "Thank you for joining us today, sir." He gives him a soul handshake. Then he says, "Brother Brown, heard you left your tennis stuff in an open car in a white neighborhood." He shakes his head. "Stole it, huh?" He laughs.
Richard Williams likes to play games with white people. He tells white reporters: "Now, don't be intimidated by us. We won't hurt you." He seems to think he is throwing them off stride when they interview him about his daughters. Williams is the father, coach and manager of Serena and Venus Williams, tennis prodigies since they were 4 1/2 years old. Serena, 15, is in her second year as a professional player. She lost her first pro match, 6-1, 6-1, to a girl who said, "I guess I played a celebrity."
Venus, 16, has been a pro for three years. She has competed in only a handful of tournaments and won none. Still, both girls are famous for being tennis prodigies. The Miami Herald recently ran a story naming all the celebrities who would walk in the Miami Silverwalk chairty to benefit female athletes. Venus's name was listed alongside that of Martina Navratilova, arguably the best femal tennis player of all time. That's heady company for a girl who has yet to win a pro tournament. But that might change come Thursday, when Venus takes the court in the Lipton Tennis Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla. She will compete in singles and then in doubles with her sister against some of the best female players in the world.
There is a history of tennis fathers coaching daughters. Stefano and Jennifer Capraiti; Jim and Mary Pierce; Peter and Steffi Graf, Jimmy and Chrissie Evert; Richard and Venus and Serena Williams. Most of thosespartnerships ended disastrously. ("Chrissie turned out the best," says Nick Bollettieri, who runs a tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla.) Mary Pierce got a court order to keep her father away from her. Steffi Graf's father was arrested, and she was threatened with arrest, for financial improprieties related to her tennis earnings. She claimed she was just a trusting daughter who let her father handle her affairs. Which is the problem when young tennis women surrender control of their professional lives to their fathers.
"When a father coaches a daughter, there's a conflict of roles and misinterpretation of priorities," says Kevin O'Connor, a director of the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Tampa, Fla. "The child might seek fatherly advice and yet she's the income provider, so the father's advice might be driven by dollars. What is the message from the parent? Is he the coach or a father?"
Despitge his daughters' lack of tournament experience, Williams thinks they are already champions." He puts out a newsletter in which he refers to himself as King Richard. He writes that his daughters were tennis superstars virtually from the first day they stepped onto the court. Of Venus, he says: "I don't know anyone who's done what Venus did. She should go right to the Hall of Fame. She's going to be there anyway, so why waste time?"
Reebok seems to agree with Williams: it has signed Venus, whose last tournament win came when she was 10 years old, to a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract. Serena's last win was when she was 9, although her father claims she won 46 of 49 tournaments between the ages of 4 1/2 and 9. That comes out to almost 11 tournaments a year. Williams says he has turned down other sponsors because too much money might "mess up" his kids: "We have the perfect example in Jennifer Capriati. They messed up a lot" - a reference to Capriati's much-documented drug problems.
"They said Jennifer's father was a fool" for letting her turn pro at 14, Williams says. "She was a great kid at 14. At 15, she lost her smile, At 16, there were problems. What happened? I want to make sure that doesn't happen to my kids."
What precisely Williams learned from the Capriatis is not clear, since he allowed both his daughters to turn pro at 14. He even threatened to sue the Women's Tennis Association if it refused to let Serena compete in pro tournaments. Still, he says he is determined to make sure his children don't get "messed up" in tennis. That's why he refused to let them compete in junior tennis tournaments during their formative years. He claims that junior tournaments put too much pressure on children, especially from their parents. He cites as an example a little girl who was so frightened at taking the court against Venus that Venus quit the match so the girl wouldn't have to face her parents' screaming. Apparently, Williams feels there is less pressure on his girls in pro tournaments.
Despite the Williams girls' lack of victories, they do look like champions. Venus is 6 feet 1 inch, regal looking, like an African queen. Her trademark corn rowed hair is fastened with plastic beads that swing wildly when she plays. Serena is shorter, stockier, less regal looking, but more powerful. If Venus is the queen, Serena is the warrior. She, too, sometimes wears the beaded corn row hairstyle. The hair was their father's idea when he began sending out brochures to promote his little girls.
"Mr Williams has helped me a lot in marketing myself," says Tunicia Sheffield, 25, who was also guided by Williams and is ranked 900th in the world. "He told me it's not about tennis, it's about marketing myself. He's very critical of the way Zina Garrison looks. He says she doesn't have neat hair and her clothes are mismatched."
Sheffield says Williams doesn't let her practice with his daughters because he "doesn't like Serena and Venus to hit with girls. They only hit with men." Men, however, who are chosen as carefully as Don King chooses his fighters' opponents.
Today, Serena is hitting with Gerard Gbedey at one court, and Venus is hitting with Dave Rineberg at the other. Williams sits under the umbrella and watches his daughters, while his wife stands under a tree, playing with her basketball.
Serena moves powerfully on the court, low to the ground, squat, like a pit bull. Venus moves straight up, her long arms like whips driving the ball over the net.
"Serena is awesome," says Williams. "She's going to be better than Venus." Serena drives Gbedey's serve into the net very powerfully. "That's all right, Serena Williams," says her father.
Serena smiles and runs over to her father and kisses him on the cheek. "I love you , Daddy. Your're great."
"I love you, too, Serena Williams. You're great."
Venus whips a passing shot past Rineberg's outstretched racquet. The ball is out, but Rineberg says nothing. Williams says, "You've got Dave's number, Venus Williams."
Venus smiles and runs over to her father and kisses his cheek. "I love you, Daddy," she says.
"I love you, too, Venus Williams. You're a great kid."
The Breakers West parking lot if filled with Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes. The grounds are lush. Lime-collored tennis balls are scattered like Easter eggs among the liriope.
Williams used to hustle up discarded tennis balls on public courts in Los Angeles for his daughters. He slept in junkyard cars when he was a young man working at a car wash in Los Angeles. He threw out trash for a doctor when he was a boy from the "poorest family" in the "poorest section" of Shreveport, La. He was one of five children, the only son of Julia Williams, a single mother who supported her brood by picking cotton.
"My mother was my dad, my psychiatrist, my hero, the greatest person who ever lived," says Williams. "She taught me pride, decency, religion and that civilization would disappear when the family went bad. The only mistake she ever made was to marry my father."
As a boy, Williams worked many jobs before and after school but still found time to excel in sports. By his account, he was "the second-best basketball player in the state, the best football player in the state, even though some thought Bill Cannon was, and the best golfer in the state. I didn't play tennis. I thought it was a sissy game."
After high school, he moved to Chicago to work on construction jobs. At 20, he moved to Los Angeles, settled in Watts, started his own security business (Samson Security) and married Oracene, a nurse. They had five daughters (Yetunde, 24, Isha, 23, Lyndrea, 18; Venus, and Serena), all of whom he says he started in tennis. "Yetunde was very good," he says. "Isha was awesome. Lyndrea too. Serena might be the best. But Venus was a champion the first day."
When Venus was 4 1/2, the Williamses were living in Compton. The only tennis courts available to them were in gang territory. Williams has used that ghetto experience to creat "The Myth of Venus, Serena and Richard Williams." In his newsletter, he writes: "Venus and Serena was shot at by the gang members (the Bloods) while practicing tennis, and they (the girls) hit the ground. Mr. Williams was beaten up several time. ... After about seven months, he had earned their 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 daughter. ..."
Williams says: "I don't know if I should tell you any more. I'm going to write a book about my life. I'd better ask my agent." He flips open his cellular phone and calls his agent. Oracene Williams takes over the coaching.
"Venus, you were late with your racquet," she says.
"Serena, you're too heavy on your feet."
Williams gets off the phone. Venus smashes a serve past Gbedey's outstretched racquet for an ace, except the ball is six inches out. Gbedey explodes with an expletive.
Williams smiles. "Don't beat him too bad."
When Venus was a child, he says, he never encouraged her tennis: "She's too smart. Most tennis players are dumb."
To discourage Venus from "getting to a new level too soon," Williams claims he roots against her in matches. "Every time she loses, I pay her $50," he says. "Venus says she has more $50 bills than she knows what to do with."
Williams claims he was against Venus turning pro at 14. "But you can't really say no to kids these days," he says. But he has also said, "She was taught to obey her parents." Williams has forbidden Venus to lift weights because he doesn't want her "to get broke down," and he has forbidden her to date until she's 21 because "she's not ready until then."
Gbedey hits a passing shot to Venus's left. She strides after it, her legs gobbling up the court, and rifles a backhand to Gbedey, who flubs it.
Williams calls out: "Way to move, Venus! That's why you're going to be a superstar." But Venus is like a young, gawky colt, still not grown into her long legs and big feet. At times her height and strength make up for her lack of finesse. For brief stretches, she can overpower almost anyone. But she can't maintain those blinding stretches. At an Oakland tournament in 1994, she had Arantxa Sanchez Vicario down a set, with a service break, when her game fell apart. Sanchez Vicario won 2-6, 6-3, 6-0. At the Acura Classic in 1995, Venus lost badly in her first round to an unknown, 6-4, 6-1. Writers said she had an "erratic service toss" and an inability to hit the ball anywhere except down the middle. But she was also described as looking "spectacular" with her beaded braids and "a white silk vest with a bow in the back."
Williams brushed off his daughter's poor performace by saying "she didn't practice much. Her only weakness is she's overconfident." Williams promotes his daughter as a "champion," and when she loses, he minimizes the losses with excuses. "She didn't practice much," he says of someone who practices four hours a day, six days a week. Williams works hard to maintain the myth of Venus and Serena as child prodigies whose stardom is a foregone conclusion. Thus, they can be cavalier about their game. By way of contrast, Martina Hingis, who is Venus's age, has already won more than 100 pro matches.
"The only thing that can stop Venus from being No. 1 by 18 is an accident," Williams says. "Do you know, Venus Williams gets more media attention than anyone in sports except Michael Jordan?"
Despite the "media attention," Williams claims there is "so much racism in America that Americans don't care about black people. That's why I plan to promote Venus and Serena in Asia. I don't want to market them in a society that doesn't care about them. Chinese people are interested in black people." A moment later, he says, "I never thought about marketing my daughters, but I might look at it now." He claims he has never made money off his daughters. Yet a Reebok spokesman, Dave Fogelson, says Williams was paid a consultancy fee for two years. "Reebok never paid me one penny," says Williams.
Williams says the entire family, plus four tutors, taught Venus and Serena at home. "Venus is back in school now," Williams says. "But that might be a mistake. Maybe I'll just put her in college. First I'll talk to her psychiatrist to make sure I'm not pushing her too hard." (Venus says, "I like that I have an exact time to go to school and do my homework.") Williams might get Serena to quit tennis, too, "because she's too bright."
Williams says Yetunde has been in medical school "dealing with hearts, valves and muscles of the heart," since she was 16, although he will not say what school took her at 16. Isha is now in a law school he will not disclose. Lyndrea is a "genius," and Serena is "brilliant."
Williams is on his cellular phone again. His wife produces her own phone and makes a call. Serena and Venus have teamed up in a doubles match against Rineberg and Gbedey.
Oracene Williams calls out, "You're dragging your back foot, Venus." Venus says nothing.
Rineberg lobs a ball high into the sun. Venus backpedals. Her feet get crossed. She staggers a bit before slamming the ball into the net.
"You have to get back quicker, Venus," says her mother.
"That's all right, Venus," says her father. "That was a great shot." Venus runs over to her father and kisses him. "You're a great kid, Venus."
Gbedey and Rineberg take and early lead, laughing between themselves. The girls look annoyed at this deviation from their father's scripted practices. Serena, heavy legged, lunges for a ball to her left and misses it.
"That's all right, Serena," says her father. "Martina didn't become great in a day."
Venus hits Gbedey's next serve into the net. She glares at the man in the Hawaiian shirt, watching. It bothers her. Objective attention. But still, she drives the next serve deep into Gbedey's court, handcuffing him. She smiles and does a little dance.
"Here comes the Wimbledon trophy," says Richard Williams. "Let me hold the purse."
And so it goes. The two girls practicing in a vacuum. Not praticing, really, just playing. With no pressure, no real coaching, except for unqualified praise. Until a few years ago, Rick Macci, of the Inverrary Racquet Club in Fort Lauderdale, was the Williams girls' coach. He tutored them for three and a half years, 30 hours a week, the way coaches tutor prodigies. They stand behind them on every shot. They stop play to correct a mistake. It's grueling work. Two shots. A practice swing without the ball. The sun beating down mercilessly. The prodigy getting frustrated. The coach trying to remember he is working with a child.
"She has weapons that supersede her lacks, but she doen't have a lot of depth," Macci says. "When Richard said he didn't want the girls playing a lot of tournaments, I thought that was a good idea because they were raw." He laughs. "But I didn't think they'd go three years."
"The jury's still out on whether he did the right thing," says Nick Bollettieri. "Monica Seles had limited participation as a youngster and it didn't affect her play. Venus is an athlete with lots of power that could overcome the difficulties of her limited schedule."
Kevin O'Connor of the Saddlebrook Academy echoes the conventional tennis wisdom: "Venus has been kept out of so many tournaments she doesn't have a competitive foundation. Now if she comptetes, her achievement might be less than expected." O'Connor cautions that "Venus has one more year of an aura of excitement about her before she becomes an old song. People will say: 'Enough, already. Come on, you gotta play!' " On Thursday, Venus and Serena will step up to the challenge of their promise. And play.
Pat Jordan is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. His most recent article was on Kobe Bryant.
Carol. Empress. Vika. P3tra. Garbine. Dasha. Casey. Marion.