Old artcle about the Williams
Who's Your Daddy?
Call Richard Williams what you want -- bizarre, deceitful or, perhaps, mad -- but be sure of one thing: He has brilliantly guided the careers and lives of his daughters Venus and Serena, the hottest players in tennis
More Venus & Serena Main page Timeline Sept. 20, 1999: Father Knew Best May 31, 1999: Who's Your Daddy? April 5, 1999: We Told You So Feb. 2, 1998: Slice Girls Sept. 15, 1997: Venus Envy Nov. 14, 1994: Venus Rising June 10, 1991: Child's Play
By S.L. Price
Issue date: May 31, 1999
The Hollywood producer has seen them come and go over the last 24 years: blowhards and egomaniacs and self-deluding hacks, wunderkinds and wondrous talents and a staggering parade of frauds. He has clashed with Oliver Stone, launched Julia Roberts, survived Barbra Streisand. The Hollywood producer reads people for a living. He has become very rich. He met Richard Williams -- father, coach and manager of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams -- late in 1997, after having bought a big chunk of the Puma sneaker and apparel company and deciding to pursue an endorsement deal with Serena. The two men began to talk. Then they began to negotiate. The Hollywood producer had rarely been so confounded.
"You know when you meet somebody, and you think he's either insane or he's a genius?" says the producer, Arnon Milchan, founder of New Regency Productions. "But if he's insane, he's still fascinating, because you've never seen somebody so crazy in that way? You say, 'It's probably impossible, but this guy looks like he's in good faith.' What he's saying you've never heard before.
"He's saying, 'I knew. I was planning this before the girls were born.' That's like I would tell you that I knew Pretty Woman would exist before it was a script, and that it would be a great script, and I knew I was going to discover Julia Roberts, and she was going to be Number 1. In my world if I say those things, somebody will say, 'What mushrooms did Arnon take?'"
Forgive Milchan his discombobulation. It's 4:30 a.m., the mid-May morning just beginning to break over the Mediterranean. Milchan is staying in the French town of Antibes while attending the 52nd Cannes International Film Festival, and he needs his rest. Today two of his megabudget films premiere, Entrapment at Cannes and William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the U.S. But jet lag and the recent screen tests Milchan arranged for Venus and Serena have him babbling at high speed.
When he sat across his desk from Richard Dove Williams that day a year and a half ago, Milchan faced a cotton picker's son who had dropped out of high school at 16; raised his family in the gangland jungle of Compton, Calif.; taught himself tennis; felt beyond reason that his girls would be great at the sport; and gambled plenty of money that he was right. Serena was ranked 99th in the world then, but Richard -- against the advice of his closest advisers -- kept bending the bargaining away from a big payment up front and toward huge incentive payoffs when, not if, Serena cracked the Top 10, the Top 5, the top spot at last.
Milchan, a man who's estimated to be worth more than some movie studios, didn't understand. How could this man have such confidence? What about the unknown? What about injuries? "Then you think, Wait a minute, where's the upside for him if he's lying?" Milchan says. "There's no upside. So there are only two possibilities: Either he's totally crazy -- but that's impossible, because there's something totally sane and healthy about his family -- or he knows something I don't."
Milchan has never found out all that Richard Williams knows. He sees only what everyone else has seen this spring: After years of hype and hope and controversy, Venus and Serena Williams have become the hottest players -- male or female -- in tennis, an unprecedented sister act that threatens to overwhelm the sport with power, athleticism and in-your-face attitude. Already this year 18-year-old Venus and 17-year-old Serena have met in a historic final (at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., on March 28), won WTA tournaments on the same day (Venus the IGA Superthrift Tennis Classic in Oklahoma City and Serena the Open Gaz de France in Paris on Feb. 28) and, with six tournament wins between them (four for fifth-ranked Venus and two for No. 10 Serena), begun to crowd No. 1 Martina Hingis atop the money list like a pair of bullies plotting to take her milk money. "They're the strongest opponents on tour," Hingis says.
"I wasn't expecting them so fast, you know?" says 19th-ranked Irina Spirlea, who infamously bumped Venus during a changeover at the 1997 U.S. Open, beat Serena on the same court a year later and was manhandled 6-2, 6-3 by Serena three weeks ago at the Italian Open in Rome. "Sometimes I'm in awe. They have something the others don't have."
And, boy, do they know it. Now that their braces have been removed, Venus and Serena have taken off the gloves as well, vowing to make the French Open and Wimbledon singles trophies family property. Serena, who is in just her second year on tour -- and is still looking to advance past the fourth round in the singles of a Grand Slam -- blithely predicts that she will win at the All-England Club in July. "I can see myself lifting that plate for sure," she says. "I just can't see it not happening."
To which Venus, who has only been to one Slam final, at the 1997 U.S. Open, responds, "If she's going to take Wimbledon, I have to take the French. That's how I feel."
That both girls deliver such mind-bending pronouncements while alternately giggling and glowering is part of their charm. "They bring life to the game, a different dimension to the game," says Bruce Schilling, director of U.S. sports marketing for Nike. "Tennis is a finite world. They expand the boundaries, and that is -- uh, would have been -- good for us."
Forgive Schilling his disappointment. Nike lost out to Puma in the bidding for Serena 16 months ago -- just as it lost out when Reebok signed Venus in May 1995 -- but how was Schilling or anyone else at Nike to know that a big sneaker deal wouldn't be mega enough for Richard Williams? Richard is predicting that his girls will be "bigger than Michael Jordan," and who better than a movie mogul to set his crossover conquest in motion?
On April 15 Serena cracked the Top 10 for the first time, tilting the deal Richard struck with Milchan in Serena's favor to the tune of $2.5 million a year for the remainder of the five-year contract. "Now we're paying a ton of money to Serena, and we love it!" says Milchan, who also owns the WTA's international television rights. Better yet, after Venus's and Serena's screen tests last March, Milchan is convinced that the Williamses "have the goods" to be multimedia stars, players in movies or TV sitcoms. "The camera loves them," Milchan says, "and the incredible thing is, they're not even 20 years old."
Yesterday's fool is driving 90 mph with no hands. His left thigh is wedged under the steering wheel of the black Mercedes ML320, and with the slightest nudge Richard Williams makes the SUV glide from lane to lane. His large hands flutter about, juggling two constantly chirping cellular phones and a rumpled green pack of cigarillos. It's 8:20 on the morning of April 27, and the sun is beginning to sizzle on I-95 outside Jupiter, Fla. Serena is on one of the three courts back at the family house in Palm Beach Gardens, practicing on clay. Venus and her mother, Oracene, are in Hamburg for a tournament. Richard is rocketing north to Fort Pierce to give what he calls a "motivational speech" to administrators at an elementary school. He's 57 years old. Even while he squints against the harsh light, his eyes glitter like precious stones.
Richard begins reciting the family saga, worn smooth by years of constant handling: How he met Oracene at a bus stop in Los Angeles and loved "her big old gorgeous beautiful legs" and told her right then and there that he wanted to marry her and have five girls. How one day, after the first three daughters -- Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea -- were born, he saw Virginia Ruzici receive a $30,000 check on television for winning a tennis tournament, and he decided his next two kids would play tennis. How Oracene resisted having more children, and he hid her birth-control pills and wooed her with romantic dinners. How Venus ran a 5:29 mile at eight years old and how Richard grew so disgusted that year with the maniacal parents infesting junior tennis that he tried to make Venus quit the game. "She used to love it so much, I had to try to take the racket from her," Richard says, "but she wouldn't give it up. Right now we would like her to retire at 22. I don't think she will."
Thirty seconds later he says, "When we got started in tennis, it was to go out and make a lot of money. Believe me, we have made tons, and I'll make even more."
A cell phone beeps. It's Richard Dove Williams III, 33, one of his two sons from an earlier marriage. Richard III and his wife are helping to run his father's various enterprises, including a newly created charter bus service called Williams & Williams. The son is calling about someone trying to drop off a car at the Williamses' family compound. The father first commands his son to donate the car to Goodwill and then changes his mind. "Go back to the office and do whatever you were doing," he says. "Have a good morning and thank you very much my son I love you very much good morning."
Richard puts down the phone. He says that pro tennis is detrimental to all families but that his is too strong to be damaged by it. He says that Jim Pierce, the infamous father of No. 8-ranked Mary Pierce, "is one of the best parents I have ever known." He says you shouldn't ever blame race for your troubles. He says that he's finished coaching his daughters: "If Venus and Serena don't have enough sense to go out there and teach themselves, that's their problem. I've done my job."
It's 8:50 a.m. A half-hour conversation with Richard Williams is a fun house ride of contradiction, twisted logic, mangled language and startling pronouncements delivered with an air more suited to someone ordering breakfast. His verbal gyrations have become part and parcel of his daughters' rise over the last decade, the disconcerting kick on an already overpowering serve.
"I hope you win," he said to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, then No. 2 in the world, before she played Venus in the latter's debut tournament in 1994.
"A big tall white turkey," he called Spirlea after her collision with Venus at the 1997 U.S. Open.
"I think Serena would kick her butt going and coming," Richard said of Hingis last August, before Hingis crushed Serena 6-4, 6-1 in the Acura Classic in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "Sometimes he should watch his mouth," Hingis said after the match.
He hit bizarre new heights at the 1999 Lipton, when Venus and Serena became the first sisters to meet in a pro-level tournament final in 115 years. Before, while and after his daughters engaged in a curiously flat match--which Venus won 6-1, 4-6, 6-4--Richard put on a one-man sideshow, holding up handprinted signs (I TOLD YOU SO!) in the stands and holding two spectacularly jarring press conferences, one before and one after the match, in which he declared: 1) Steffi Graf was his favorite player; 2) he wasn't capitalizing as much as he could on his daughters' success because he does so much work for "the Chinese peoples and the Japanese peoples"; and 3) "As a matter of fact, we thinking now about buying Rockefeller Center for $3,900,000,000, so I don't have time to even think about tennis no more."
Before the Lipton final Richard claimed that he creates three businesses a year that he expects to be worth $10 million to $15 million each, though the specific names of these companies, apart from the Williams & Williams charter bus service, remain a mystery. He spoke of plans to publish comic books and said that as a singer he could become good enough to "push" Michael Jackson. After the match he said he had left the stands at one point because he felt like crying, only to end up arguing with a vendor because he had only $1.50 to spend on a $3 pretzel. His hands shook as he spoke. "I actually feel like a fool," he said. For a man described by his defenders as a loving father and shrewd dealmaker and by his critics as controlling and manipulative, this was the weirdest incarnation yet: Richard Williams out of touch, benign and bumbling.
But those who know Richard best don't buy it. "Rockefeller Center? I've heard a million things crazier than that," says Rick Macci, who coached Venus and Serena from September 1991 to July '95 at his Delray Beach, Fla., tennis academy. "He did an interview when Venus first moved to the academy and told the interviewer someone offered him $78 million for the rights to the kids." Richard would call and say that the girls wouldn't be around some weekend because 'we're going to the White House.' I didn't know if he meant the white house down the road or the real White House. When I'd tell him he throws a better curve than Greg Maddux, he'd just say, 'I've got to keep everybody off balance.'"
"There's a method to his madness," says Keven Davis, the family's agent and legal adviser for the last 11 years. "Everything he says is very well thought out and intends a certain result. Ninety-nine times out of 100, he gets that result. Don't ever underestimate Richard."
Don't ever take what he says completely at face value, either. At the Lipton, Richard said that his daughter Isha, 25, "is getting ready to graduate from law school," and "she's already taking classes to become a surgeon." Isha, who was enrolled at Howard as a senior last semester, says that she will enter Georgetown Law next fall and that she's thinking about going on to medical school afterward.
At the Lipton, Richard also spoke of a psychiatrist named Michael J. Goldstein, who had advised Venus and Serena to limit the number of tournaments they both would play in. But more recently Richard, who receives a salary for coaching and managing his daughters and also claims to make a living lending money, buying and selling property, and developing businesses, said, "Dr. Michael J. Goldstein, Rubenstein and Weinstein are in charge of collecting [raising] money from the Jews for me."
In 1991 Richard told SI that his Compton security firm, Samson Security, employed six people. Today he says that Samson, which closed in '92, had 55 employees at its peak.
None of these inconsistencies bother Richard. "The key to success is looking at something you want and dreaming it's yours," he says. "People used to look at me and say, 'That man can lie.' My wife used to say to me, 'What's your problem? Why do you lie so much?' Because when people would see me, I'd say, 'I'm a millionaire.' They'd say, 'Man, you live in that raggedy old house.' I'd say, 'So what? Didn't you know millionaires live in raggedy houses? You ever been in Beverly Hills? I own every house and every car down there.' Today I do own a home in Beverly Hills, I own a home in Brentwood."
Such flakiness, of course, doesn't put Richard in the first rank of obliviously overbearing tennis parents such as Pierce, Stefano Capriati and Marinko Lucic. When it comes to the development of Venus and Serena as players and people, in fact, Richard has been unerring. In 1991, against the advice of tennis experts, Richard, who had learned to play in part by watching instructional videos, pulled both daughters off the Southern California junior tennis circuit. He moved the family to Florida and enrolled Venus and Serena in Macci's academy, and, while he deftly worked a homemade hype machine, he and Oracene demanded that the girls expend as much energy on education as they did on practice. "Richard and I had ups and downs over a lot of things," says Macci, who had a long-running dispute with Williams over unpaid coaching fees until they reached a settlement in December 1997, "but he's always been an incredible father to those two girls. If he'd wanted more money, he could've had them playing more. But I can remember 50 times when he called off practice because Venus's grades were down. They'd be in my office studying French, and I'd be saying, 'Hey, we've got to work.'"
The result: Besides reaching the Top 10 in tennis, Venus and Serena maintained 3.0-plus averages at The Driftwood Academy, an accredited 30-student private high school in Lake Park, Fla. According to Driftwood founder and administrator Sandra MacManus, Venus graduated in January 1998 and Serena the following August. Both are now mulling over going to college and seize every opportunity to show off their knowledge. They write and edit a newsletter called The Tennis Monthly Recap, which they distribute in the players' lounge during tournaments and also offer to subscribers. Venus studies French and German and wants to learn Italian. She raves about her "ramified" interests, writes poetry and wants to work in fashion design.
Serena has learned some Russian from her mixed doubles partner, Max Mirnyi, and after winning her first tournament, in Paris in February, she gave a short acceptance speech in French. Then she fielded a few questions in French in the postmatch press conference. The point isn't that the Williams sisters are intellectuals but that they're fearless to the point of arrogance. During her U.S. Open debut last year, Serena tussled with a roomful of journalists over the origin of the word ghetto. Confronted by the fact that her explanation was off by a couple of hundred years, Serena said, "You have your information, and I have mine." If they don't like a particular question, they'll glare at the questioner until the topic dies.
"My kids were brought up working," Richard says. "Every kid in the house was working at two years old; Venus and Serena were delivering phone books. I taught my kids to be very, very independent. My wife would get upset about it, but I didn't care who got upset. One day that kid would have to be on her own." Richard grew up in the Cedar Grove section of Shreveport, La., the oldest son of Julia Mae Williams, a single mother of five who picked cotton, whipped him when he was disobedient, harped on his potential for greatness and insisted that he solve problems on his own. He says he saw no reason to raise his daughters any differently.
He nudges the Mercedes onto an exit ramp, realizes he's early for his meeting and begins cruising slowly down a shabby stretch of Orange Avenue. He pulls into a car wash and steps out in his bare feet, walking for a while on the asphalt with a cell phone to his ear. An attendant cranks up the pressure hose and begins spraying water and soap over the mammoth likenesses of Venus and Serena stuck on the sides of the SUV. After a few moments Richard tugs on a pair of Reeboks. Then he leans into the Mercedes and begins fiddling with the dials on the stereo. He turns the volume up and smiles. The interior of the vehicle fills with sound: a manic organ, a crew of backup vocalists, a man reciting. It's Richard.
Being misunderstood never bothered me none. I grew up my whole life that way. So to what people think and say about me and my wife and my daughters, my methods, my views and my statements: It really don't bother me none. (Bother me none!) ...
People often ask me (How did I think!) how did I think that I could be (Think that I could be!) the mental force behind two winning female tennis stars? Even though I had no real exposure to the game? The answer to that: I didn't think I could do anything. I could help my daughters. I didn't think I could help them. I didn't think I could make them something special: I knew I could make them. I knew I could help my daughters be successful. (I knew.) ...
Now, I see some of you shaking your heads (Shaking your heads!), getting ready to call me ignorant son of a you-know-what. (Son of a what?) And I might say I do sound cocky. But I say it because if you believe in yourself, it can happen. (It can happen!)
Richard Williams. (Richard Williams!) Richard Williams.
The organ fades. When asked the name of his keyboard player, Richard jabs a thumb into his chest. "I bought it at Circuit City," he says.
The next morning Richard is on the family clay court, brushing the white lines, picking up loose balls like any tennis coach. He's less talkative today, seems smaller, as if dwarfed by the expanse of his own success. With a front lawn broad enough to accommodate a circus, the Williams place sits in a clearing on 21 acres of leafy isolation. The house is roomy, white and simple. A big, half-empty pond stretches across the lawn. Serena walks toward the court slowly, past placards reading SERENA YOU MUST LEARN TO LISTEN and VENUS WHEN YOU FAIL YOU FAIL ALONE and SERENA YOU MUST USE MORE TOPSPIN ON BALL. She warms up her serving motion by hurling into the air broken rackets taken one by one from a massive pile by the side of the court.
Richard sets an orange cone in the deuce service court. For a couple of minutes Serena serves ball after ball, but none touch the cone. Richard approaches Serena and stands silently no more than four feet from her. He folds his hands. Serena tosses, stretches and serves the ball, her racket whistling past Richard's face. He doesn't flinch. The ball hits the cone. She hits another. The ball hits the cone. "Five more," he says. Serena finishes, walks over to the table and chairs at courtside and files her nails. After two minutes she walks back on the court, throws a few balls over the net, serves a few lefthanded, rallies for 10 minutes with Richard. He slaps most of his shots wide, some into the net, a few on target. "Keep your old ass down," he mumbles to himself. "You're not looking at it." Serena hammers a few lax forehands, and Richard abruptly stops, approaches the net and says, chuckling, "Come here." Serena trudges up, and Richard hugs her, and they kiss lightly on the lips. "I love you," he says, and just like that, the session ends.
Oracene says that Richard and Serena are very much alike, both more outgoing and verbal than Venus. For years Richard has proclaimed that Serena will be the better player of the two, and people may soon have to admit he was right about that, too. No one has ever risen as fast through the WTA ranks -- from 453 to the Top 20 -- than Serena did in her first eight months on tour, beginning in October 1997, and she hasn't slackened the pace. After she won a season-best 16 straight matches this year, beating Grand Slam queens Graf, Hingis, Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport in the process, everyone from Mary Pierce to Anna Kournikova to Venus agreed that of the two sisters, Serena plays with greater variety and ease. "I think Serena has more clean shots than her sister," says Spirlea. "She hits the ball harder. She can mix it easier than Venus. She can be Number 1."
Plus Serena benefits from the motivation of both love and revenge. Venus can take or leave tennis anytime, Oracene says, but Serena adores the game and "she's meaner. Venus is more controlled. Serena can be very calculating if you do anything to her. She won't forget it. She'll pop you." Serena learned early: Somebody always pays. Once, when she was much younger and driving in the car with her father, Richard was lecturing her on the virtues of admitting when you commit a wrong. So Serena confessed, "Remember, Daddy, when you lost your dentures last week? I threw them away." Richard says he drove to the next stoplight, "got out and whipped her ass."
Asked what she likes best about the game, Serena doesn't hesitate: "Winning. I like going out and beating up on people. I get joy out of that. I really do."
Serena says she is "destined" to be a champion. During that 12-hour negotiating session between Milchan and Richard, Serena put her head down on the desk and fell asleep. But when Milchan asked Richard how he could be so sure of her greatness, Serena bolted upright and snapped, "Do you have any doubt I'll be in the top five?"
Venus is the only opponent she hasn't solved. Serena hasn't beaten her in three matches on the tour, and their relatives as well as other players agree that Serena is still intimidated by the family pecking order. She also says that whenever she envisions winning a Grand Slam title, the only opponent she can conjure up is Venus. Serena also says she's happy that, for the most part, they aren't playing the same tournaments. "I've never lost to anyone three times in a row, not even the Number 1 player in the world," Serena says, sounding dumbfounded. "I have to realize I can win."
It has been 20 minutes already, and still only one man in the room knows why he's here. The other nine people gathered around the table -- teachers and administrators at Fort Pierce's Garden City Technology Elementary Magnet School and local community leaders -- have been staring politely at Richard Williams as he has rambled from subject to subject, from his new bus company to Jewish-owned TV stations to computers to the educational and anticrime programs he has supported with time and money in Haines City, Fla., and Pahokee, Fla., from the values of "white peoples" to the making of TV commercials to Venus's and Serena's future careers in modeling. His hosts were expecting something different -- a chance for the school's students to meet Serena and a commitment from Richard to finance an outreach program for kids in Fort Pierce -- and when Richard says something about the importance of making a plan, the principal of Garden City Elementary, Dr. Martha Rahming, grabs her opening.
"So...as far as Garden City is concerned -- that's where my heart is -- are we, ah, talking about developing a plan with you?" she says.
"My plan is so huge, I don't even know if I can do it," Richard says. "My plan would be to take a small church and make that church bigger than any church in the U.S. To do all that, you have to have the involvement of a school and a lot of peoples involved. You have to have major media. I love to have the media bash me. You know why? You do something good and save someone's life, no one cares. But all of us saw the news last week in Colorado -- and why, do you know? Because it was bad news. You want to be famous? Get you some bad news." Someone comes in to tell Richard his SUV is blocking the driveway. When he leaves the room, a community representative says, "We've got to tone him down and get him to what he's going to do for this county."
Rahming blows out a mouthful of air. Another woman looks up from her handwritten notes and says, "I'd like him to come to the point."
They don't know: Richard Williams can't be rushed. When, in 1994, the 14-year old Venus was a week away from making her long-awaited debut in a pro tournament in Oakland, Macci urged Richard to allow him to crank up the intensity of her practices. Richard agreed but then called Macci the next day to announce that he was taking the family for a weeklong trip to Disney World.
Meanwhile Davis, Richard's legal adviser, urged him to sign a sneaker deal before the tournament, in case Venus's debut was a disaster. "But Richard said he wasn't going to do anything right then," Davis says. "I thought he was taking a serious gamble. He proved us all wrong." Venus won her first match and pushed Sanchez Vicario to three sets in her second. As soon as the tournament ended, Richard began entertaining offers from shoe companies entranced by Venus's showing. Seven months later she signed a five-year deal with Reebok worth a reported $12 million, unheard-of numbers for a player with her limited experience.
There are, Richard says, many prominent as well as obscure charities in which he has taken an interest as his daughters' income has increased. Over the past two years he has directed nearly $60,000 to a family developmental center in Pahokee called Concerned Youth for Community Improvement (CYCI). "They kept us alive; they kept feeding us," says CYCI founder the Reverend Patricia Wallace of the Williams family. Richard says he and his daughters also help finance the Venus and Serena Williams Tutorial/Tennis Academy in South Central Los Angeles and other educational programs in Winston-Salem, N.C., and West Dallas, Texas. He adds that in the past week alone, Serena has "donated" $110,000 to his charity efforts, and Venus has "donated" $115,000. But pinning down Richard on the specifics is no easier for potential beneficiaries of his largesse than it is for tennis officials, journalists and his own advisers.
"So," Rahming interrupts again, "when are you going to know the plan? When are you going to know if it comes together?"
Richard hedges. "I don't know if it's going to work," he says. "I don't want to promise anything..I'm so very busy." Recently Rahming talked to a woman in Richard's office and was told that Richard would set up something for Fort Pierce by the end of the school year.
Driving home, Richard stops for gas. The front page of The Palm Beach Post features a story on his new bus company, complete with a color picture of him. Richard buys three copies. "Most people don't know nothing about me 'cause when I'm talking I always talk like I'm stupid," he says. "I prefer people to think I'm stupid."
Big day for the Williams family. It's May 6, and Venus and Serena are in Rome for the Italian Open, playing in the same tournament for the first time since their Lipton final. Venus has just trampled Kournikova 6-2, 6-2, reducing her opponent's usual haughtiness to meek confusion. "She's all arms and legs," Kournikova says. "She was always a step faster than me."
"Serena!" Venus shouts from 50 feet away. She's coming down the narrow hallway under the Foro Italico, and Serena's eyes widen as she waits with her mother and sister Isha. Venus rushes up, kisses Oracene on the cheek, and she and Serena lean together and rush off, arms, hips, sides bumping in a giggly tangle. The sisters' tight bond has been depicted as twinlike and rudely exclusionary, and they make no apologies. "We're the same people," Serena says. "We have two separate hearts," Venus says. "At least I think so." When Venus traveled to Hamburg without Serena before the Italian Open, she fell quiet and calm. The moment she arrived in Rome, though, "I was just out of control," she says. "When we get together, I just get, I don't know, crazy."
Oracene trudges down the hallway, saying little and watching all. Because Richard is staying home all spring and summer, Oracene, who also learned the game from Richard, is serving as the sisters' coach, butting into their practice sessions against a male hitting partner with a soft word, sitting through all the matches. Oracene is the family's quiet authority. She balances Richard's bombast with her strong faith (Richard is the only non-Jehovah's Witness in the Williams household) and clear-eyed judgment. After Richard complicated Venus's run at the 1997 U.S. Open with his inflammatory comments about Spirlea, Oracene told him he had been wrong to spout off. "He didn't say anything, but he hears me," Oracene says. Richard publicly apologized for his remarks.
Oracene never wanted to live in Compton. A graduate of Eastern Michigan with a degree in education, she had dreams of being an R&B singer. Then she started having children; thereafter, she says, "my life ended." She worked as a private-duty nurse and refused to let the failure of so many others in Compton affect her daughters. "I never had the ghetto frame of mind," Oracene says. "When I first moved there I hated it. Where I was raised, we had trees and a house. It was nice. I was ashamed to say I lived in Compton. After a while I got used to it. But my mind was never in Compton. If my daughters said they couldn't do anything, I'd say, 'Yes, you can. You can do anything you want. Nothing is unattainable.'"
They all believed her, then and now. The oldest daughter, Yetunde, 26, works as an intensive-care nurse in Southern California. Isha says she plans to get an M.B.A. along with her law degree at Georgetown and then perhaps go on to medical school. Lyndrea, 21, is majoring in computer science and international business at Howard. "I was never comfortable," says Isha. "My family was never comfortable. We're not comfortable now. We're always seeking ways to push ourselves."
Of course, in tennis, positive thinking only takes you so far; eventually everybody must lose. This is the concept Venus and Serena have found most difficult to swallow. Last year's Wimbledon was a family debacle. After falling behind 7-5, 4-1 to Virginia Ruano-Pascual in a third-round match, Serena abruptly pulled up lame with a calf injury and retired, neglecting to shake Ruano-Pascual's hand. She showed no sign of injury, however, in winning the Wimbledon mixed-doubles title with Mirnyi. "I read later that she was so hurt," says Davenport. "She was getting her ass kicked. I thought she was a complete wimp about it. I played her [two days later] in mixed, and she was jumping for lobs."
Then Venus lost her composure after a series of line calls went against her in a quarterfinal match against eventual champion Jana Novotna. Venus had been pressing Novotna to her limit, but after a couple of adverse line calls she started to fall apart. "Why is this happening?" she cried. Venus cracked again at the 1999 Australian Open. In a quarterfinal match against Davenport, she was assessed an unprecedented -- but legitimate -- point penalty after some beads fell from her hair and bounded about the court. "This has never happened to me before," Venus told chair umpire Denis Overberg. She didn't win another game in the match.
"There's no question Venus is going to be a great player," Davenport says, but it's also clear that she and Serena have yet to demonstrate poise under pressure on the sport's grandest stages. Oracene refuses, however, even to consider the matter. "There's no such thing as pressure," she says. "As black Americans, that's all we've ever had. It's life. So where's the pressure?"
She's sitting in an overstuffed chair in the lobby of a posh hotel overlooking Rome. The issue of race, of course, would be a subtext for the Williamses even if no one ever spoke of it. No important black tennis player -- not Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison or Mal Washington -- ever carried himself or herself with the casual sense of entitlement that envelops Venus and Serena. "Most of all, we do our own thing," Venus says. "We do what we want. We're very different from everyone else, because we think differently."
Oracene keeps track. She notices whenever people take her daughters to task for cockiness. "It's like, Squish them down, they can't have that confidence!" Oracene says. "I teach my kids to live in reality: You're black, you always have to work harder -- but you don't have to prove yourself to anybody. I don't expect you to, and I don't expect you to apologize. Ever."
Abruptly Oracene breaks into a wide smile. Her face shines in the soft lobby light. "It's like the Bible says: If someone is talking bad about you, be happy," she says. "I schooled the girls on the ****** issue. I said, You might get called that, and if you do, just say, 'Thank you!' I love it. You know, I am so sick of people saying the n word. Forget it. 'It's what you are! Say it! Go on!' Eventually when they see it doesn't bother you, they'll leave it alone. I can't wait for someone to say it. I've been planning on it."
Here's what it's like to be 18 years old and delighted with being alive. Venus pulls up in a shiny new Porsche coupe and sits down smiling at a sheltered picnic table in a park near the Williamses' house. It's just two days since her dominating win over Pierce in the Italian Open final -- her second tour victory on clay in two weeks -- and she's feeling quite sure that her time has come. "I'm trying to think of whom I should lose to and why," Venus says, "and I can't think of any reasons why I should."
She giggles some more, and it comes across as neither cocky nor overbearing. She's happy with her game. She's happy with being 6'2". "I like everything that I am," she says. "My mom always says, 'Can't you find something you don't like about yourself?' Actually, I can't. That's just the way I've always been."
Gray clouds hang overhead, thunder booms. Venus ignores it. Screen tests, money, winning, family: It's a beautiful day. The philosophy is simple, she says. You want it? Get it. "I like being the best," she says. "This year I have the most titles of any player on the women's tour. [After Hingis won in Berlin two weeks ago, she and Venus were tied with four titles.] I feel good about that. I'm going to try and make sure it stays that way. I like moving toward goals: Right now I'm Number 5. Soon I'll be Number 4, and that's great. One day I'll win the French Open, and that'll be great. Then I'll have to move on and win Wimbledon."