Friday, July 04, 2008

Venus and Serena Williams have traveled a tough road

Venus and Serena Williams have traveled a tough road
We tend to forget the obstacles they've faced, how they've persevered, and the fact that what they've been doing all these years defies expectations.
Kurt Streeter, LA TIMES, July 4, 2008

Saturday morning, on the pockmarked grass at Wimbledon's center court, two sisters from Compton will trade booming serves and bolo-punch forehands for the All England title.

When the last ball is struck and Venus and Serena Williams embrace at net, they will have finished facing off in a Grand Slam final for the seventh time, the third time on British soil. This is a supremely consistent duo: A Williams sister has played in the Wimbledon women's singles final every year this century but one.

We've grown accustomed to seeing these two powerful women hoist gleaming trophies and smile those big, bright smiles and fight for each point like it is some sort of golden nugget. So accustomed that we take the Williams sisters for granted. We tend to forget the obstacles they've faced, how they've persevered, and the fact that what they've been doing all these years defies expectations.

Think about the odds. When they were little girls, Venus and Serena's enigmatic father told everyone who would listen that his girls would one day take professional tennis by storm. He was castigated and scorned. Fact is, given how difficult tennis is, even if Richard Williams had been a wealthy, suburban dad audacious enough to say that his girls would one day earn tennis scholarships to Weber State, he'd have been branded delusional.

Venus and Serena weren't daughters of a suburban dad. They hail, we know, from the hard Southland flats and they spent their formative years learning tennis in South L.A.'s most difficult neighborhoods. Compton and its environs are a maze that must too often be moved through with caution.

I know this. Not long ago a member of my own family was murdered there, a baby caught in a crossfire in front of my great-aunt's well-tended home.

Venus and Serena know this, too. Tennis prowess allowed them to leave Compton for Florida just before they reached their teens. They made it out, partly because of the tightly focused gaze of their parents. But that focused gaze, and that discipline, couldn't keep Venus and Serena's sister, Yetunde, from being gunned down by a gang member as she innocently drove on a dark South L.A. street five years ago.

No, in some parts of L.A., strong parenting is often not enough to protect. But it did help Venus and Serena form the inner strength necessary to succeed despite the odds and critics and naysayers, of which there have been many along the way.

What they've done, crashing through the upper reaches of a virtually all-white sport, then remaining there for over a decade, borders on the impossible.

I've some small sense for what they've been through. I'm African-American and I played tennis at a pretty high level. I was a captain on Cal's 1989 indoor national champion tennis team and for a short while a lowly ranked, scuffling player in the minor leagues whose highest world ranking was No. 448, in doubles. That's not as high as I would have liked, but put in another perspective, it's not too terribly bad. There were about 1,200 players with world rankings on the men's tour when I played, and I could count the ones who looked like me with two hands. Think it's any different now, even with Venus and Serena? Think again.

Nothing comes easy when you're that distinct a minority. You've got to have a strong spine and immense confidence to fight against isolation and doubt, both self-inflicted and coming from others. You are forced to play at country clubs whose exclusionary policies make walking in the door problematic.

Some opponents and fans, emboldened, are more than open about their attitudes, calling you every name in the book.

Happened to me more times than I'd like to admit, most memorably in a match against Arizona State that nearly ended in a brawl.

The Williams sisters, trust me, grew up facing this kind of pressure -- doubt and isolation -- writ large. Mega large. They still face it.

Serena recently had to deal with an allegedly racist heckler at a tournament in Florida. Closer to home, in 2001, the Williams family was subjected to a raucous, vile barrage of boos at a tournament in Indian Wells that one top tennis official said was among the harshest crowd behavior he'd ever witnessed.

Who's to know what motivates crowds, but many believe the verbal taunts were motivated, at least in part, by race.

This isn't to say that Venus and Serena haven't been treated well.

They've been welcomed by the tennis world, adored and admired and catered to in ways that should make all of us proud. Somewhere in the heavens, Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson are beaming.

The progress we're seeing these days is real. Remember this on Saturday.

And remember, too, the hard journey Venus and Serena Williams have taken to once again reach the finals at Wimbledon, tennis' Taj Mahal. None of this has come easy for these daughters of South L.A.

We meet again
The Williamses head-to-head in Grand Slam finals:

2001 U.S. Open - Venus
2002 French Open - Serena
2002 Wimbledon - Serena
2002 U.S. Open - Serena
2003 Australian Open - Serena
2003 Wimbledon - Serena

Kurt Streeter's column began in July of 2007. Previously, he wrote for The Times' California section and front page, focusing on crime, police, transportation and everyday people living uncommon lives. He covered the San Quentin execution of Robert Lee Massie in 2002. His five-part narrative about a girl boxer from East Los Angeles and her relationship with her ex-gangster father won a 2005 Associated Press News Editors award. That story, along with a Column One about an elderly boxing timekeeper and his memories, was included in the 2006 edition of Best American Sports Writing. Streeter has also worked for the Baltimore Sun, where he won awards for his coverage of the inner city, and as a documentary film and radio producer. An accomplished athlete, Streeter co-captained the 1989 UC Berkeley tennis team and won the Northern California Intercollegiate Championships in both singles and doubles. He played part-time in the minor leagues of professional tennis, holding a world ranking from 1988 to 1991 and winning tournaments in Tulsa, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Vancouver, B.C. A Cal political science major, he lives near Dodger Stadium with his wife, Vanashree Jhaveri.


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