Tennis titans show they're just regular folk
Tagging along with the Williams sisters during their recent charity tour shed some light on who they are as people, writes Graham Bensinger.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't supposed to be this way for Venus and Serena Williams. After all, two poor, black sisters growing up in Compton, Calif., aren't supposed to become world-champion tennis players, much less role models.
But here they stood in front of an auditorium brimming with students from Vance High School, doling out advice about life. For 20 minutes, they told their story and answered questions. The high school teens and eighth-graders in the crowd listened and learned.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who aren't believers," Venus Williams said into the microphone, voice echoing off the walls. "We have a motto: Believe in yourself because no one else will."
They had come a long way, figuratively and literally. Their tour in the first week of December to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House Charities had started in Denver, then moved on to New Orleans before jumping to Raleigh, N.C. From there, a three-hour charter bus ride had brought them to Charlotte. Serena had gone directly to Charlotte Bobcats Arena, site of their upcoming charity match. There, she caught the remaining half of the Bobcats-San Antonio Spurs NBA game. Tired, Venus instead chose to go to the hotel.
They had started the morning at a local racket club, arriving just in time to join Jon Wilson of "Fox News Rising" for a quick appearance before the newscast went off the air at 8 a.m. They continued a variety of media interviews at nearby studios before pulling up at the high school at 10:45 a.m. After the high school tennis team had welcomed them with a banner, Venus and Serena drew laughs from an interested audience when they said to study hard, go to college and not do drugs -- good messages, but teenagers don't want to be told what to do. Instead, Venus explained why they made those same positive choices.
"We're from the 'hood," Venus said, to exuberant applause. "Growing up, our older sisters would be hocking CDs and trying to make it. But like people said, we weren't going to make it because we were from the 'hood. People didn't believe in us because of where we came from."
Despite the late nights and early mornings, the Williamses were surprisingly upbeat. Their long journey, in many ways, was coming to a close.
"When you were on Oprah," she was asked, "you all claimed you were made fun of in school. Have any of these people that made fun of you contacted you to apologize?"
Laughing, Serena said: "Everyone goes through an awkward stage. I probably went through the ultimate awkward stage." She paused as the crowd and her sister laughed. "If you saw a picture of me, you wouldn't even know it was me. I deserved to be teased." More laughter. "I would have teased myself, too. I don't hold it against them at all, actually. No one's ever contacted me, but I like to think they regret it."
Although often reserved when engaged by the media, the outgoing Williams sisters are fun to be around -- their smiles are contagious. They kept a sense of humor during a tour on few hours of sleep while entangled in legal battles. During the tour, a lawsuit against Richard Williams and the sisters was being heard in West Palm Beach, Fla. On Dec. 21, Richard was found liable for breach of contract in a suit filed by organizers of a 2001 "Battle of the Sexes" tournament in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but did not have to pay damages. Venus was cleared but the courts ruled that Serena had allowed her father to act as her agent. Neither sister had to pay damages.
Through it all, the sisters appear to be even closer than you'd expect. And they've embraced being two unlikely international superstars.
"They're just trying to live their lives," said bodyguard Curtis Patrick. "They have fun and crack jokes. They're down-to-earth. They're not above the norm just because they've been fortunate enough to have a little extra in their pockets. They're some cool chicks!"
Each turned professional at 14 years old, Venus coming first, before many teenagers have entered high school. Soon, the sisters were so dominant that they didn't have to be on their "A" game to win titles. Their size, build, talent and sheer intimidation factor surpassed that of their competitors.
More than a decade later, they have a combined 12 Grand Slam titles, including Serena's four straight over Venus (aka, The Serena Slam). They've set sibling milestones and made tennis more racially inclusive. The Williams sisters have had an indelible effect on society and tennis.
Now, they're at a crossroads. Venus finished the year ranked No. 47 in singles; Serena is ranked No. 93.
Ankle and knee injuries have caused Serena, 25, to miss a variety of tournaments in the last three years, including two of the last three Grand Slams. She was forced to use a wild card to gain entry into this summer's U.S. Open, the first time since 1998 that she was unseeded in a Grand Slam event.
Meanwhile, Venus' left wrist injury caused her to miss that same U.S. Open. Shortly afterward, she reinjured her wrist in the Luxembourg Open in September. It's unknown if she'll play in the Australian Open.
"I'm feeling pretty decent these days," said Venus, 26. She indicated that she's been training and getting fit.
Venus was scheduled to represent the U.S., with Mardi Fish, in the 18th annual Hopman Cup matches beginning Dec. 30 in Australia in preparation for the Australian Open, but withdrew this week.
"We definitely plan on being there," said Serena of the Open.
People have questioned their dedication and enthusiasm for the sport. Their ventures outside of tennis often draw criticism, especially when they're injured. The harshest remarks have been directed at Serena.
"Serena should be in her physical prime but she is wasting time you cannot ever get back. She had the opportunity to be the greatest in history," 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova has told reporters. "Instead, she'll be a supernova who burst on the scene and then she was gone."
But it's all part of a plan to have something to fall back on after tennis, something their parents told them was important, Serena said. Richard Williams once said that he could see his daughters developing outside interests and retiring early from tennis because he did not want them to turn into a couple of "gum-chewing illiterates."
|VENUS AND SERENA WILLIAMS:
ON AND OFF THE COURT
Watch Graham Bensinger's entire interview with Venus and Serena Williams on ESPN360.
Their eyes light up when discussing their other interests. Serena described her apparel line, Aneres ("Serena" spelled backward) as "a mixture between old classics going back to Josephine Baker and Joan Crawford, and mix that with modern pop culture. It has a classy feel to it, but with a modern twist." Venus, meanwhile, started an interior decorating company called V Starr Interiors. Her company designed the athletes' apartments for the U.S. bid package for the 2012 Olympic Games.
"As an athlete, you do use your body, and you never know, at any given day, what could happen," said Serena. "As for what people think, I've never been really concerned with that. I've always been really concerned with making myself happy."
They certainly appeared happy in front of 5,363 fans at Bobcats arena for their final match against each other for charity. The umpire is usually the only one who speaks during a tennis match, but not during the Williams sisters' tour. Venus took the microphone after winning the first set to joke with the crowd.
"I've gotten a little bit lucky today because [Serena's] balls are flying. I wonder if it's because I told the stringer to string [Serena's racket] a little bit looser?" said Venus, laughing. "No, I wouldn't do it -- just in a real tournament."
Even though she seldom hit a two-handed backhand all night because of her wrist injury, Venus rallied in the second set to win the lighthearted match 6-3, 6-4.
"The winning end is always pretty jolly," said Venus outside their locker room afterward. When they play each other, it's like "playing the ultimate competitor who also happens to be your best friend."
"We're both extremely competitive," said Serena, who leads the career tournament head-to-head record 8-7 over her sister.
"Extremely competitive," said Venus. "Like, to the max, overly competitive, actually."
"The ultimate competitors," said the sisters, Serena starting the sentence, Venus finishing it.
The Williams sisters have won their medals and trophies, have made their money and are doing exactly what they want to do. They're living their lives.
"We love tennis and are going to go until it's something that we don't want to pursue anymore," said Venus.
Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.