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bwguy
Mar 21st, 2004, 12:14 PM
Serena's changing priorities





By Karen Crouse, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2004


How savvy of Serena Williams to work so hard on those chiseled muscles and that couture tennis outfit. How clever of her to return to the WTA Tour this week at Key Biscayne looking for all the world as if the only thing that has changed since July is the apparel company logo on her chest.

Make no mistake. Williams' outwardly normal appearance is like a cross-court shot disguised as a forehand down the line:

It's meant to fool you.

The player poised to resume her tennis career after an eight-month injury timeout is a different person from the one who conquered Wimbledon last year in her last competitive appearance. "I have three kids now," the Palm Beach Gardens resident said.

Then Williams laughed. But it sounded as hollow as the promise of tomorrow.

On Sept. 14, 2003, a spray of bullets pierced Williams' inner sanctum. Yetunde Price, her half sister and a divorced mother of three, was slain in a shooting in the family's former hometown of Compton, Calif.

In early August, a surgeon had been able to mend the tear in the quadriceps tendon in Williams' left knee. The knee now is as good as new. Her tattered heart is another matter.

Only time can heal that.

"It's been hard," Williams said last week during a teleconference call with reporters. "Yes, it's been difficult."

Michael Jordan, after his father was murdered, cast aside basketball and sought refuge in baseball. Williams threw herself into acting and fashion design during the winter, while her knee was on the mend, but never considered turning her back on tennis.

Tennis is her profession, after all. It just never again can be her obsession.

The truth is, since Yetunde Price's murder the whole family's focus has shifted, away from the well-being of the two tennis-playing sisters and to the welfare of the three motherless kids: Jeffrey, 11; Justus, 9; and Jair, 5.

"We are very close as a family," Williams said. "We talk on a daily basis and we all just try to pull each other together, and we all just try to remain strong for one another."

Williams says she has a mighty hunger to get back to No. 1, a position she held for 57 weeks, until 10 days after her surgery.

At the same time, her sister's murder stripped Williams of her last remaining illusion. She had assumed she'd grow old with her four sisters. That was half the fun of watching The Golden Girls, old episodes of which Williams has been known to devour. It was like sampling a slice of her life to come with Venus, Isha, Lyndrea and Yetunde.

Yetunde's death left a hole in Williams' life that tennis alone can't fill. No Serena Slam, no Nike endorsement contract, however lucrative, can replace what a triggerman on a dead-end street stole from her.

"Tennis was just so much of my life," Williams said, "and then you begin to realize that life is much more than hitting a tennis ball over the net."



Yetunde a treasured sister



The WTA constellation has been a dim cluster without its Alpha Serena; there's no getting around that.

But as much as women's tennis needs Williams, Williams needs her peace of mind more. Why can't the people grousing about her absence from the tour understand that? During the past six months, Williams' priorities have changed even if her love for the game hasn't.

Asked what she learned while away from the sport, Williams said, "that tennis isn't No. 1 in my life. I've learned that there are other things in life that mean much more to me, and you never know what can happen in a given day and you've just really got to take your opportunities and embrace them."

Yetunde was a big sis straight out of Central Casting. There wasn't anything she wouldn't do for her siblings. Serena, 22, and Venus, 23, were still in Mary Janes and frilly ankle socks when Price, who was 31 when she died, began feeding their appetite for fashion. She paid out of her pocket to keep them dressed in the latest fads.

There can be no repaying everything that the sisters owed to Yetunde. All they can do is be there for Price's children. The children come before everything, Williams said.

That includes tennis.

Price was not one to wear her heritage like a family tartan. There were people with whom she was friendly in her neighborhood in Corona, Calif., who didn't know until after her death that she was a member of the first family of women's tennis.

Price passed along to her children the notion that discretion is the better part of manners, forewarning them, "You don't go around telling people Serena and Venus are your aunties."

The other day Jeffrey Jr. emerged from a back room at a hair salon in Lakewood, Calif., that Price co-owned with her friend Mitzi Williams. It was like seeing Yetunde's ghost.

Justus was trapped in a stylist's chair, looking glum as she got her hair done. The braiding used to be done by her mom.

The little girl inherited her mother's radar. She's very perceptive. As her hair was being tugged and twisted, she warily eyed a reporter seated in the waiting area. Anonymity was another thing the children lost when Price died. Now it seems that everybody knows who are their aunties.

The salon door clanged opened and Jeffrey Johnson Sr. walked through. Johnson, whose romance with Price morphed into an enduring friendship, was collecting Jeffrey and Jair for the day.

Johnson said Oracene Price, Yetunde's mother and the matriarch of the Williams clan, has been staying with the children in the house in Corona, everybody having agreed it's best that the kids not be uprooted at this time. Oracene Price, reached by telephone Friday, declined to discuss the arrangement and would not comment for this story.



Searching for answers



The children were at home with a baby sitter on the night Yetunde Price went for a drive with Rolland Wormley, who she had been dating.

Shortly after midnight, on a shadowy street, Price was shot in the back of the head, roughly 1 mile from the courts where Serena and Venus learned to play tennis.

She was in the passenger seat of her white SUV. Wormley, who has served time for drug and firearms offenses, was behind the wheel. That much police investigators can say for sure. Other details surrounding the shooting are in dispute.

Wormley, who was not injured, has told police investigators he and Price were shot at without provocation. Other witnesses at the scene have told police they saw or heard gunfire coming from Price's car before she and Wormley were fired upon.

Two gang members, Robert Edward Maxfield and Aaron Michael Hammer, have been arrested in connection with Price's death and are awaiting trial.

On Jan. 14, three days before Maxfield was apprehended, Jeffrey Jr. turned to Jeffrey Sr., an accountant who lives and works in Compton. Out of the clear blue, he announced, "Mom's been gone for four months now."

In the silence that ensued Johnson could hear his heart breaking. "I didn't even know he was keeping count of the days," he said.

Price's death has been hard on the grown-ups and children alike. Johnson was rooting around a pile of papers one day when he came across a birthday card that Yetunde had given him.

That was a difficult day. He keeps wondering when they'll get easier.

They all do.

"I think Serena took it really hard," Johnson said. "Actually, all of them took it hard. I think their upbringing has taught the sisters how to deal with (unpleasant) things, how to separate sports from their personal lives. But it's like Richard (the Williams family patriarch) said. He taught them to deal with a lot of things but death wasn't one of them."

The way Price died left too many questions for there to be any closure. Johnson says people ask him all the time, "What was Yetunde doing in Compton?"

"Everybody's looking for an answer," Johnson said, sighing.

There is so much he may never know, but some things he can say with absolute certainty:

She was a good person. She was caring and energetic. She was industrious, signing up for more classes to beef up her nursing credentials.

Johnson chuckled softly. When 'Tunde set her mind to something, he added, there was no stopping her.

He might as well have been describing Serena.

Williams was asked the other day how she expects to pursue top-level tennis and careers in acting and fashion design without her performance in any or all of them suffering.

Most people, it was pointed out to her, wouldn't be able to juggle so many interests without slipping up somewhere.

"First and foremost," she replied, "I am not most people."

No, and neither was Price.

During her time away from the tennis tour, Williams scored a significant personal victory. She pulled together and pulled off her first fashion show, in L.A. Yetunde would have been so proud.

"Just to be able to realize I can go from a horrible sketch to a beautiful gown, it's been just amazing," Williams said.

That's nothing compared to the extended Williams family's current project. You try taking a horrible tragedy and making a beautiful life for three children. To pull that off, well, everybody agrees, it will be a major achievement.

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