A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Venus, Serena Reflect As They Prepare For Fed Cup
MIAMI – They arrived in Delray Beach 15 years ago with ”bad hair and gaps — we needed braces badly,” Venus Williams said Thursday, giggling with younger sister Serena as they prepared for this weekend’s Fed Cup quarterfinal against Belgium.
”We were just young and playing hours of tennis, having fun, reaching for the dream.” Venus was a willowy 11-year-old at the time, 6 feet tall, arms that seemed to stretch forever, hair in beaded braids, mature beyond her years.
Serena was a phenomenally talented 9-year-old who hated to lose and sometimes had to be bribed with curly french fries to put forth maximum effort at practice.
They had moved to Florida from gang-infested Compton, Calif., to attend Rick Macci’s tennis academy and though they had yet to play a serious match, each firmly believed she would some day be No. 1 in the world. They practiced 30 hours per week, and also took boxing, ballet and tae kwon do.
”We were brainwashed,” Serena Williams said, smiling as Venus nodded. “We just practiced, practiced, practiced because we believed we could reach the top.”
That they did, winning 13 Grand Slams between them and earning a combined $34.2 million in prize money and millions more in endorsements. They share a home in Palm Beach Gardens, and are back in Delray for Fed Cup, where it all began.
`DOING IT THEIR WAY’
They look different now — perfect teeth, each sister with her own style, sporting shorter, more natural-looking hairdos. But in many ways, they haven’t changed. They’re still ”doing it their way,” as Macci put it, and they’re still the talk of tennis.
Their father, Richard, didn’t care for the hyper-competitive, sometimes nasty, atmosphere on the junior circuit, so his daughters didn’t play junior tennis for three years. The longer they trained in seclusion, following their father’s unorthodox path, the more intriguing they became. They were featured in the nation’s top newspapers and magazines before they had played a single pro match.
”They were technically flawed and very raw, and they improvised a lot, but it was obvious they had the goods to transcend the sport,” Macci said. “Venus was so tall, could run like the wind, and had incredible power. The world of tennis had never seen anything like her. Serena had a fighting spirit that was off the charts. I was quoted at the time saying they’d be No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, and that was a mouthful.”
“A lot of people thought they were all hype, that it was all smoke and mirrors, and then you throw in the race card and they were a huge story. So-called experts and agents would come see them, and cosmetically, they didn’t like the way the Williams sisters played. All people saw was arms, legs and hair flying everywhere. There were those who wanted them to fail, and they saw what they wanted to see. Truth is, they were happy-go-lucky, very respectful and charming girls, and in time, proved everyone wrong.”
Macci didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Richard Williams, but says he admired him because “even though some of what he said was in left field, he treated his daughters like kids, allowed them to be little girls.”
When Serena would complain of fatigue or a sore knee at practice (which was often), her dad would pack up her bag and take her to the mall or the beach. Their mother, Oracene, also was extremely supportive.
A DETERMINED LOOK
U.S. Fed Cup captain Zina Garrison has been a mentor to the Williams sisters since they were little. She remembers first seeing them when they were 7 and 8 at a charity event in California.
”They had such determination in their eyes,” Garrison said. “They were so hungry, and all they knew was that ball. They were different from other juniors.”
Garrison was in Oakland in October 1994, when Venus made her pro debut. She had not played a competitive match in more than three years, and managed to beat veteran Shaun Stafford in the first round and then led No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 6-2, 3-1 before losing in three sets.
”It was electrifying,” Garrison said. ‘I was in the locker room when Venus came in, and I said, `Good luck.’ Everyone wanted to see her play, and when she hit those backhand winners with power, everyone was like, ‘Wow!’ You just knew a champion had arrived.”
Said Macci: “For Venus to walk in off the street and take the world’s No. 2 player to three sets is like someone walking off the street into AmericanAirlines Arena and playing a game for the Heat. It was phenomenal.
“If she had won that match, it would have been one of the biggest upsets in sports history.”
They continue to surprise the experts. Just when people had written off Venus a few years ago, she came from nowhere to win Wimbledon. Serena played only four tournaments last year, and came back this year to win the Australian Open and Sony Ericsson Open, dominating Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2, and 6-1, 6-1, respectively.
”They did it their way then, and they still do it their way,” Macci said.
Their beads are no longer clacking as they race around the court, but the Williams sisters are making just as much noise as ever.