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QueenO
Aug 11th, 2002, 02:54 PM
Sister has a new star
Serena Williams, now ranked No. 1 in the world, will be the main attraction as sister Venus skips event
Montreal Gazette
By PAT HICKEY

It's difficult to separate the fact from the legend, but if you believe Richard Williams, his daughters' path to tennis superstardom began before they were conceived.

According to Williams, he was watching a tennis match on television and was amazed at the size of the paycheque presented to the woman who lost the match. Williams, who was already the father of three daughters, decided then and there to convince his wife, Oracene, to have two more kids and he decided they would be tennis stars.

It's a good story, and it might be true. The problem is that Richard Williams is given to hyperbole and outrageous statements. But as the Rogers AT&T Cup Canadian Open moves into the Jarry Tennis Centre this week, his youngest daughter, Serena, is the top-ranked player on the Sanex WTA Tour computer.

And that's no surprise to Richard Williams, who guided his daughters from the mean streets of inner-city Los Angeles to the green grass of Wimbledon, where the sisters have combined to win the last three titles. Six years ago, Williams boldly predicted his daughters would be the best players in the world. And while Venus was the first to take centre stage, Richard wouldn't hesitate to say Serena would one day eclipse her older sister.

That day has come. Venus has a 5-4 lifetime advantage in one of the more controversial head-to-head matchups in the sport. Over the years, there have been charges that Richard Williams has manipulated the results of their matches against each other, and it is clear the sisters aren't comfortable playing each other.

They seldom play the same tournaments, with the exception of the Grand Slam events. That's why Serena is a solo act in Montreal, while Venus had the stage to herself at a series of hardcourt events in California.

But the balance of power has shifted this year. Serena holds a 3-0 edge over Venus, including wins in the final at the French Open and Wimbledon. The latter victory allowed her to wrest the No. 1 ranking from her older sister.

The sisters are currently ranked 1-2, marking the first time sisters have occupied the top two spots. They are also the highest-ranking African-Americans on the computer, although Althea Gibson was regarded as the best in the world in the late 1950s before there was a computer or the prize money that has made the sisters multi-millionaires.

Their current digs in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., are far removed from the Los Angeles ghetto of Compton. That's where the Williams sisters started hitting tennis balls at a public park. According to the legend, the Williams sisters had to hone their forehands while ducking bullets fired by rival gangs. The reality is that while they shared the park with drug dealers, they also shared it with other youngsters bent on careers in the National Basketball Association or the National Football League.

Richard Williams served as their coach, and the sisters quickly developed the aggressive athletic style that has become their trademark. Williams would drive his battered Volkswagen van to private country clubs and buy used tennis balls for 10 cents apiece. His daughters soon became accustomed to running for dead balls that had little bounce left in them.

Richard Williams consulted psychologists and coaches for advice on how to develop champions. He devised unique training methods that included having the girls return serves with a baseball bat instead of a racquet.

By the time she was 12, Venus had compiled a 63-0 record in the competitive Southern California junior circuit and had won her first - and only - national 18-and-under title. That's when dad decided junior tennis wasn't the healthiest environment for his youngsters. He pulled them out of junior events.

Bob Shafter, who was attempting to sign the youngster to a deal to use Wilson racquets, remembers calling Richard Williams an idiot. Said Shafter: "Conventional wisdom said he was throwing their chances away."

Shafter and conventional wisdom both proved wrong. Williams had a plan as he packed up the family belongings and moved to Florida. The Sunshine State is the mecca of junior tennis. Players from all over the world flock there to attend the dozens of academies that cater to world-class wannabes. The sisters were awarded scholarships to an academy run by Rick Macci, but while most of Macci's prize students played tournaments, the Williams sisters merely practiced.

While most of their classmates counted the days until they could join a professional circuit, Richard Williams noted on more than one occasion that he thought his daughters would be crazy to play pro tennis. It was a strange stance for a man whose dream was to see his daughters reach the top of their game. Or perhaps it was just a classic case of reverse psychology - the more he discouraged the idea, the more the kids wanted to play.

Venus turned pro when she was 15, with Serena following a year later when she was 14. Serena's first pro tournament was the Bell Challenge in Quebec City, where she lost 6-1, 6-1 to Anne Miller in a qualifying match.

Serena has won far more matches than she has lost since that inauspicious defeat. During their early years on the WTA Tour, the Williams sisters made steady progress, but they balanced their tennis with other interests, including school. They are both high-school graduates, which might not seem remarkable but is an achievement in a sport where education is sometimes left behind in the rush to cash in.

Both sisters have also taken college courses and have shown a flair for fashion design, although there has been an effort in the past year to concentrate more on tennis, an effort that has been rewarded by their current rankings.

Serena was the first to win a Grand Slam title, taking the U.S. Open in 1999. The following year, she met Venus in the semi-finals at Wimbledon and Venus was a straight-set winner. That was the match that led to the charge Richard Williams had orchestrated the outcome because he wanted both of his daughters to have a Grand Slam title.

The suggestion that Richard Williams served as a puppeteer led to one ugly incident last year, The sisters were supposed to meet in the semi-finals at Indian Wells in California, but Venus withdrew because of a knee injury. After Serena won the title, some fans called Serena a loser and a cheater, and Richard Williams said he was the victim of racial slurs.

But if their on-court clashes have raised suspicion, their practice of avoiding each on the court has also produced some criticism. Jennifer Capriati, who was No. 1 before Venus claimed the honour, feels the Williams sisters have an advantage in the rankings because they don't beat up on each other.

The sisters counter by saying the rankings are based on the number of events they play and that they would have more points if they played more tournaments.

There have also been suggestions in the past that Serena suffered from a lack of confidence and that some of her injury problems might have been more a question of shaky nerves than, say, the food poisoning that plagued her against Martina Hingis in the 2001 Australian Open or the stomach flu that was her undoing later that year when she met Capriati at Wimbledon.

Local fans might remember her appearance in the 2000 Canadian Open final. She had a 6-0, 2-0 lead over Hingis when she began to experience foot problems and went on to lose in three sets.

Before this year's French Open, Serena noted that her confidence has grown.

"I think nowadays I'm very focused," she told the New York Times. "I don't believe many people can beat me, if any. I think that's the difference. I think Venus has had that attitude for a long while. Now I've been able to develop it."

While Serena has emerged as the

No. 1 player on the court, she has also emerged as the more interesting personality. She has always been the more extroverted of the two, and that's been reflected in interviews and in her boldly coloured tennis outfits.

The sisters were brought up as Jehovah's Witnesses and their mother, Oracene, warned them about lesbians on the tour and about dating boys before they were ready to think about marriage.

While Venus has stuck to her mother's admonitions and has publicly acknowledged her religion as a gift from her mother, Serena has been romantically linked to Washington Redskins linebacker LeVar Arrington and C.C. Sabbathia of the Cleveland Indians. Her voice has been heard in an episode of The Simpsons, she has appeared in rapper Memphis Bleek's Do My video featuring Jay-Z, and had a cameo role in the Martin Lawrence film Black Knight.

"People say I'm more gregarious than Venus," Serena told the New York Times. "And maybe this is the way we're different. I like being in front of the camera. I've tried some acting, things like that. I've got that great smile. I definitely have the looks and the body. Hey, I'm on my way, right?"

There are those who would say Serena Williams has already arrived.