NEW YORK — It’s easy to take the Venus sisters for granted after all these years. We’re accustomed to their prowess, their nothing-to-something backstory, their celebrity power, their episodic absences and dramatic reappearances. But we shouldn’t. These exceptional players have become exceptions themselves, consistent winners for more than a decade in a women’s sport in which longevity has gone the way of wooden rackets and white balls.
Staying healthy is half the battle in tennis. Staying interested is most of the rest. Serena and Venus Williams have managed to do both, taking breaks and feeding other passions along the way, and have largely ignored those who carped at them for being different. Their confidence and their results are directly attributable to the way their parents managed their careers and molded their attitudes.
It’s time to give credit where credit is due. Lindsay Davenport is one of those who does.
“Look, they’re still playing and want to keep playing,” said Davenport, at 32 another durable fixture of the game. “I’ve actually never been the one to criticize them for having outside interests. I think it’s fantastic. It’s tough to name names, but you see the [other] girls and their parents, and it’s just like Psychotic City, and then they’re gone, whether it’s injuries or they have breakdowns or they can’t handle it any more. Venus and Serena have always had a great attitude. If they don’t feel like playing, they’re a little injured, they’re not 100 percent, they don’t want to go out there. And they try to enjoy life. They have a great time with everything.
“They have so many balls in motion, and they’re setting themselves up to enjoy life and do other stuff and not just be a tennis player. I think Richard’s always said, ‘My daughters aren’t just tennis players.’ He gets a lot of flak for that, but he handles their losses much better than many other tennis parents we’ve ever had.”
Added Rennae Stubbs, the Australian part-time commentator who’s still competitive in doubles at age 37: “They taught them well, and I think above all they taught them an unbelievable amount of self-esteem and the ability to be champions. The bottom line is [the sisters] are very evolved people, both of them, and that is 100 percent because of their parents. There’s no question about it. They have to be given props all the time for that.”
We can feel from afar the itchy fingers of readers poised to write scathing e-mails, reciting chapter and verse of every misstep the Williamses have made, every ungracious moment or aloof passage. The family is not perfect and has never claimed to be. Richard Williams, in particular, has made statements about race that have proved controversial.
But if you’re looking at success in objective terms, the balance sheet is lopsidedly positive in favor of the Williams’ approach. Richard Williams and his then-wife Oracene, who took her maiden name of Price after their divorce, first diverged from convention by keeping their daughters away from the junior circuit — a move that might have saved them as much psychologically as physically.
“I think the fact that I didn’t play every week when I was 6 definitely helped out,” Serena Williams said after her match on Tuesday. “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea for kids to be traveling the world. You get jaded and you miss out on things or you don’t look forward to things that you should look forward to.
“But it worked for me. I’m not saying it’ll work for everyone else. I think it worked for me, and I enjoy the sport and I enjoy playing. I’m just having a whole new love for it.”
The sisters played sparingly when they first turned pro, lending them a certain mystique long before they were champions. Since then, they’ve picked and chosen when to be immersed and when to step back. Few athletes have the self-assurance to do that — and to handle the inevitable fallout.
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
The Williams sisters have not only had stellar careers but maintained an inextricable sibling bond.
There were no guarantees it would work. Andre Agassi’s commitment famously waxed and waned, yet his saga carried on through three decades. Justine Henin withdrew to lick her wounds when her marriage broke up, then returned and (like a supernova) had one last burst of brilliance before leaving the scene, ostensibly for good, at 26. Serena Williams is the same age and plays on, compiling a cat-like number of lives. Venus, 28, just won her fifth Wimbledon, at her sister’s expense.
For the most part, the Williamses have kept their motivations and private struggles to themselves. It wasn’t until many months after their half-sister’s tragic, violent death that Serena Williams opened up about how much it had affected her. While as fans (and writers) we might wish we could get close enough to athletes to be able to accurately parse their every move, the sisters’ careers are proof that being guarded is probably an underrated quality in long-term survival.
Here is what’s clear from the outside. The Williams sisters have 15 Grand Slam titles, two clothing lines and one college degree between them. They have remained close in a crucible where they’re often pitted against each other. Their parents have managed to continue as supportive guides despite their marital rift. How many of us can say the same?
And here’s an educated guess. When the sisters retire, they won’t come back. They have plenty to fill the competitive void.
Venus and Serena Williams have remained interested, and interesting. That is immensely satisfying to Oracene Price, who said her only regret is that she would have started her girls at 8 or 9 or 10 instead of 4 because of the subsequent physical punishment the sport inflicted. “They learned pretty quickly,” she observed.
Price is a self-made mother of five who was a teacher and a nurse before reinventing herself as a tennis mentor, so it’s not surprising that she would encourage her daughters to lay the foundation for the second act of their lives, even if it sometimes diverts their attention from forehands and backhands. “Besides,” she said, looking out from under an impressive cloud of apricot curls, “you get bored. I get bored with the same hairdo.
“I always told them you have to stand for something, you have to have some quality in your own life. That’s what makes some athletes more substantial than others.”
Despite what various books might advertise, there is no cookie-cutter formula for raising a champion with balance. The trail the Williamses helped clear for their talented daughters wasn’t the path of least resistance, but it got them to a very lofty place.