US Open 2012: The Williams Sisters: The Making of Champions, Part 1
Venus, and Serena Williams grew up and learned their trade in Compton, Los Angeles, under the watchful eye of parents Richard and Oracene.
The Compton area of South Central LA is not noted for producing tennis champions.
Instead, this neighbourhood consists of some of the most economically deprived people in the USA.
Venus and Serena grew up and learned to play tennis in a modern day war zone, where the homicide rate was eight times the national average.
In September 2003, their half-sister Yetunde Price was gunned down and killed in Compton.
Both sisters claim to have dodged bullets whilst learning to play tennis with Serena later commenting,
“If you can keep playing tennis when someone is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration!”
Formation of a Master Plan
In June 1978, Richard watched on TV as Virginia Ruzici earned $40,000 for winning the French Open ladies’ championship—more money than he’d made all year.
He allegedly turned to Oracene and said, “Let’s have more kids and make them tennis players.”
One thing led to another and on June 17, 1980 Venus was born. Fifteen months later, on September 26, 1981, along came Serena.
Williams, who ran his own private security firm, had little tennis coaching or playing experience.
He learned about tennis by watching television instruction programmes and videos, and reading tennis instruction books.
He then taught himself and Oracene to play, so that they could hit with their five daughters.
He claims to have had no idea of how to develop talent, but hoped that involvement in sport would provide his family with a way out of the neighbourhood.
The sisters, though, did not play tennis with just their father.
In her 2009 autobiography My Life: Queen of the Court, Serena stated that at a young age she spent more of her time playing tennis with Oracene, a nurse and former schoolteacher, than with Richard.
The Early Years
At age four, Venus was given her first tennis racquet and taken by Richard to the run-down, cracked, public courts in Compton.
Having been given some brief instruction from him, she was able to hit the ball over the net almost every time.
Venus admits that one of the reasons she loved playing tennis so much was that it gave her some time alone that she could spend with her father; within a year, though, they were joined by Serena.
Both girls were blessed with exceptional natural physical ability. At age eight, Venus could run a mile in less than five-and-a-half minutes.
Serena played in her first tournament, aged four-and-a-half, and according to her father, won 46 of the 49 tournaments she entered until age 10.
Venus and Serena both loved watching tennis matches on video with their “daddy," as they affectionately called him.
For the next few years, both before and after school, and with Richard working night shifts so he could train them, the sisters hit crates full of old, dead tennis balls on these poorly lit, broken glass covered courts for hours on end.
Who Needs a Coach?
When the sisters were seven years old and six years old, Richard telephoned top coach Paul Cohen to ask if he would consider coaching them.
Cohen agreed to take a look at the girls and Richard drove them to Brentwood, California to meet him.
On hitting with the sisters for the first time, Cohen was astounded by their phenomenal athletic abilities and said,
“I had never seen a six-year-old as strong as Serena and I’d never seen a potential woman champion as athletic and as graceful as Venus.”
Cohen agreed to help Richard coach them and said later,
“I wanted essentially to train two attack dogs who would intimidate every woman that stood on the other side of the net from them, and that they would literally beat the ball and pound their opponents into submission.
With Venus and Serena, we not only built their game to be perfect, we built them with the purpose of annihilating their opponents.”
A year later, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, who had both been pupils of Cohen, visited Brentwood and watched Venus hitting with him.
Venus later got to hit with both pros and told reporters afterwards that she felt she could have beaten McEnroe if the bounces had gone her way!
On July 3, 1990, the New York Times ran an article on Venus who was the only undefeated 10-and-under player in Southern California.
Nine months later, the same paper ran a front-page story on the sisters, and spoke of the tremendous potential of Venus but dismissed the chances of younger sister Serena.
At age 10, Venus was told by her parents that she needed to concentrate on just one sport. Venus chose tennis because she believed she could become the best of all time.
When the sisters reached age 11 and age 10, Richard decided that they would play in no more junior competitions.
This was because he did not want his girls exposed to the type of competitive pressures some tennis parents were subjecting their children to.
The sisters, by this time, had attracted national attention.
Richard was offered cars, a bigger house and money from agents, including one who offered $87 million for a part in their future earnings.
However, he turned them all down and would not even allow his girls to get professional coaching. He believed he had taught them well enough.
The Rick Macci Experience
In September 1991, Richard decided to move the entire family 3000 miles east, to the Rick Macci Tennis Academy in Florida.
Rick Macci travelled to Los Angeles at Richard’s request to cast his eye over the sisters, whose reputations he had learned of at his Florida academy.
Initially, having hit with and watched the sisters play, Macci was not overly impressed.
It was not until Venus requested a break, to which she walked partly on her hands and then did backward cartwheels, that he recognised her incredible athletic potential. He said to Richard,
“Mr Williams, it looks like you’ve got the next Michael Jordan on your hands.”
To which Richard then put his arm round Macci, looked towards Serena and replied,
“No Mr Macci, we’ve got the next two Michael Jordans!”
Macci believed that he could help the sisters become the top-two ranked players in the world.
He offered them free scholarships and free accommodations for the family, which now also included younger sister Isha, in return for a percentage of their future earnings.
Macci also provided the Williams family with an $80,000 Winnebago motor home, furniture, food, and a place on the payroll for Richard at his academy - all of which Rick paid for himself.
For the next three-and-a-half years, Macci coached the sisters free of charge for six hours a day, six days a week, with Richard looking on and learning.
Junior Career: Who Needs One?
Although Macci believed Venus would get a better feel for the game by playing competitive tournaments, Richard disagreed.
He said, “Our goal is not junior tennis - Venus has nothing to gain by playing junior tennis.”
He added that he wasn’t concerned about her being a good junior player, but about her becoming a good professional.
From my book, “So you want to win Wimbledon? - How to turn the dream into reality” - available from Amazon
And here's Part 2