John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the sister’s past, present and future.
There’s video that exists of Venus and Serena Williams playing tennis when they were kids — 8 and 7, respectively — in the late ’80s, on unshaded but otherwise decent-looking public courts in California. This is not one of the clips you’ve maybe seen, taken from various news segments, but an earlier, stranger video, made by their father and longtime coach, Richard Williams, as a kind of audition tape for the tennis-instructional guru Vic Braden, ostensibly requesting an invitation to Braden’s camp, although the real reason for it, you can’t help feel in watching, simply was to let Braden know that greatness had arrived in the world. Richard’s face in the film as he presents the girls to Braden seems, as it does so often, on the brink of laughter. This was in Compton, the low-income, gang-afflicted hub city outside Los Angeles, an area made infamous by many a rap song.
Although they enjoyed about as stable an upbringing as you could have in Compton back then, its problems were no mere abstraction: they supposedly knew to lie down on the court when gunshots rang out in the park. And there’s a story that Richard, when asked what he would do if his daughters ever won a Grand Slam, said he would go back and try to help the Crips who sometimes looked out for the girls during their practice sessions. “Venus Williams Is Straight Outta Compton!” read an early promotional poster their father made, to post on telephone poles. He billed the two as celebrities before they were even famous. That was how you did it. Not fake it till you make it. You decided what you were. First you had the belief, and then you had the training. “Belief and training,” Venus told me a couple of weeks ago when I met with her in Cincinnati, where she and Serena were playing in a tournament just days after returning from the Olympics. “That was unconquerable.”