The many kinds of success of Venus and Serena Williams

Raising champions

I watched Serena Williams defeat her sister, Venus, in the quarterfinals of this year's U.S. Open, wondering, as I watched, how these two women could possibly play each other with so much at stake: Serena’s grand slam and what might have been Venus’s final chance for a major championship.

Serena Williams in 2012. (photo by Charlie Cowins via Creative Commons/Flickr)

I knew Serena would be out for blood, but Venus didn't hold back, either, challenging a call on Serena's serve early in the match, which is something Venus almost never does, regardless of opponent. The result was top-notch tennis, one of the best matches the sisters have played. Afterward, Venus waited at the net, eyes full of love. She hugged her victorious sister, then quickly ceded the spotlight, walking off elegantly, head held high.

More than tennis stars

Both women have used their fame for good. Venus’s efforts helped establish pay equality for male and female tennis players. Both donate to UNICEF, for which Serena is a goodwill ambassador, in addition to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Eva Longoria Foundation, and, of course the Serena Williams Fund. These charities provide only a partial list of what the sisters do to benefit humanity.

A more obvious gift, however, is that they are unapologetically themselves. Serena makes it okay to be a curvaceous female athlete, and to own her greatness, while Venus, also a fierce competitor, exemplifies the idea that siblings can be rivals without acrimony. Her grace and inner beauty are perhaps more remarkable than Serena’s poise and confidence. How does a person lose to her little sister so many times, especially having heard her father tell the world that she is the lesser talent of the two (though not by much, I assure you), and still convey such peace?

Party crashers

Richard Williams with his daughters after Serena’s 2012 Wimbledon win. (Photo by Paulobrad via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Richard Williams with his daughters after Serena’s 2012 Wimbledon win. (Photo by Paulobrad via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Today, the Williams sisters, and particularly Serena, are beloved by the tennis establishment and the world, and their parents, Richard and Oracene, are hailed as examples. I'm a tennis fan from way back, however, long before these two women burst on the scene, “straight outta Compton.” I remember the Sports Illustrated headline about Venus’s first trip to a Grand Slam final, which labeled her a “party crasher.” I remember the disdain directed toward the beaded hairdos the girls wore at the time. Also the criticism leveled at their father, Richard, for taking pictures during and after matches, and having the audacity to tell the world that his girls would be champions. While Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe preceded them, the Williams sisters were not welcomed into the tennis world with open arms — even their decision to have outside interests, now hailed as the reason for their longevity and well-rounded development, was critiqued.

How to guide children

Recently, a Facebook friend solicited opinions regarding a video of an interview with a black activist who is trying to fund a school for black youth. The focus of the institution would be economic empowerment: Students would be trained to play the stock market and to create and run successful businesses — basically to not rely on the rest of society for advancement. In addition, students would be steered into STEM fields and others that lead to lucrative jobs: Instead of being rappers or basketball stars, they would be funneled into medicine, for example, since the black community doesn't need any more musicians or athletes.

Some of what he said sounded good, some of it too separatist for my tastes, and some of it too. . .well, black and white. Richard Williams had a vision for his children, and the unlikeliness of it didn't deter him: The man who guided Venus and Serena in their formative years had no experience coaching tennis, learning everything from videos and books.

Obviously, you can force a child to play tennis — or the piano, or baseball — but if he or she isn't on board, at some point, that child will either rebel or simply not become as good as you, the parent, hoped. Even if he or she is on board, success is hardly guaranteed, especially at an international level. Becoming a doctor is a far more commonplace aspiration than winning even one Grand Slam tournament, but the principle remains — if all of the motivation comes from external sources, a child may grow up to be a doctor, but he or she will be a mediocre doctor. A better strategy is to inspire young people to aspire in general, exposing them to things they might not have dreamed were within their grasp and teaching them how to work hard to attain those goals. I admit that only time will tell if I'm living up to my own parenting standards.

Career and character

That Serena and Venus are excellent, well-adjusted, and curious about things outside their area of expertise is phenomenal. That they are best friends on top of that is even more amazing; the investment Oracene Price and Richard Williams made in their children has paid many important dividends. One of the most valuable is that these two young women, who dealt with ongoing racism when they began their ascent, have learned to forgive, reach out, transcend, and, as a result, bear witness to the idiocy behind the treatment they received at the outset.

I'm not implying that they ignored all of the slings and arrows that came their way — I don't believe such things should be ignored, just overcome. Neither am I implying that every slight was perfectly handled or that either one should be canonized. Still, by giving their best to not only their chosen career path, but also to their personal development and to humanity as a whole, they continue to teach all of us — black, white, and otherwise — lessons about things far greater than merely winning and losing on a tennis court.

 

Editor's note: This essay was submitted prior to Serena's loss on September 11. As the author commented in an email to me today, regarding Serena's demeanor at the post-match press conference, she wasn't "rude, so much as unwilling to suffer fools gladly, which isn't a bad thing for a woman to be able to do. She simply said, 'I don't want to talk about how disappointing it is for me. If you have any other questions, I'm open for that.'" The video can be seen here. [Judy Weightman]
 

Our readers respond

Joe Glantz

of Levittown, PA on September 18, 2015

It's been lovely to watch the Williams sisters play over the years. Serena is clearly the best women's player ever. Venus impressed me when she withdrew from a foreign tournament that would not let an Israeli woman play.
Woman's tennis has had a number of fascinating players. Suzanne Llenglen and Helen Wills Moody won 30 Grand Slam titles between 1919 and 1930. They played each other only once, in Cannes, France, in 1926, which Llenglen won in what many still call the match of the century. Llenglen was known for sipping brandy between sets, for her flamboyance and tactical play, while Wills Moody was an athletic All-American beauty. Center court at Roland Garros, France is named after Llenglen. The University of California has a Helen Wills Neourscience Center that Wills endowed with a $10 million gift back when Alice Marble was friends with Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, dated Rod Serling and played tennis at William Randolph Hearst's mansion with Charles Chaplin. She famously wrote a letter saying that black players like Althea Gibson should be allowed to play in the Grand Slams.
Marble was the first succesful serve and volley player on the woman's tour. Because of her international contacts, she became a spy during World War II. Marble was shot in the back while escaping the Germans. Luckily, she survived and used her photographic memory (because her camera was stolen) to disclose what she saw.
Molla Mallory won the US Open at age 42. Mo Connolly won the calendar Grand Slam at 19, only to see her career end shortly thereafter due to a horseback riding accident. And I haven't even yet mentioned Court, King, Evert, Navratilova, Seles, and Graf.

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