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Serena and Venus Williams, Before They Were Champions


Serena Williams announced this month that she is going to retire sometime after america Open. But 30 years ago, the player now considered one among the best ever to grace the game, was merely one half of a promising duo.

In April 1992, Arthur Ashe, the three-time major champion and a longtime friend and colleague, invited me to Philadelphia. He wanted to point out me something.

Arthur and I had worked together for HBO at Wimbledon for several years, and I had interviewed him again and again for the magazine, World Tennis.

As soon as I arrived on the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center for an exhibition and fund-raising dinner, Arthur took me aside and said, “There are two little Black girls here and wait until you see them play. They’re sisters, their names are Venus and Serena Williams, they usually’re from Compton, California. Oh, they usually’re only 11 and 10 years old.”

That will be the primary time I saw the Williams sisters play. Their story had already brought a little bit of attention as the ladies were top-ranked in Southern California junior tennis.

Their accomplishments would go on to enthrall tennis fans for the following 30 years, through 23 major championships for Serena and 7 for Venus. Even their prescient father, Richard, who reared them to be superstars, predicted they might quit the sport of their 20s. For Serena, he was off by 20 years. Venus continues to be playing.

But on that afternoon, Arthur, eschewing his typical quiet dignity, had an enormous grin on his face as he watched the sisters swat at balls fed by their father in front of dozens of fascinated spectators. They each wore crisp latest Reebok outfits and had big white beads woven through the cornrow braids that cascaded down the backs of their necks.

Venus had legs and arms that might move in inconceivable directions. When she propelled her almost six-foot frame toward the online, which she did greater than every other 11-year-old I had ever seen, she looked more like a hurdler than a tennis player.

Serena, then nearly a foot shorter than Venus, had neither the length nor the finesse of her sister. But boy, could she whack the ball. Sometimes it landed within the court. Serena also had a more pensive on-court presence, as if she had something to prove.

I recall being impressed by their on-court bravado, but unsure whether they really had the products to be top professionals.

Once I had a probability to talk with their father, he told me that Serena was the higher athlete and would, sooner or later, be the higher player. It was a refrain he would repeat again and again over time. He also told me that each girls could be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on the planet. (Ten years later, they were in reality the 2 top-ranked players within the WTA rankings.) The ladies said little or no, opting as a substitute to cover behind their dad’s imposing persona.

Suddenly, Richard turned to face Arthur. He wanted to guarantee Arthur that regardless of how successful his daughters became in tennis they might never abandon their education. That clearly pleased Arthur.

Two weeks earlier, Arthur had announced that he had AIDS. He died 10 months later at age 49 and didn’t live to see the sisters dominate his sport. It could be one other seven years before 17-year-old Serena won her first U.S. Open. A 12 months later, Venus captured the 2000 Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.

I even have now known Serena for slightly greater than 30 years. I even have praised her, and I even have sparred along with her as a reporter. I even have criticized her behavior toward officials and opponents. But I even have also marveled at her fierce determination and her extraordinary ability to hit a 120-mile-an-hour ace out wide when down match point.

I wish, on that day in 1992, that I had been sensible enough to know where Serena was headed. But on second thought, I’m glad it’s been an enormous surprise.

Cindy Shmerler is a former managing editor of World Tennis magazine. She might be covering her forty third consecutive U.S. Open.

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