Gifted offspring inherit fathers' desire to climb the mountain

There are strong racial elements in the rise of Hazel and Joetta, Tiger, Venus and Serena

If Richard Williams were to rewrite Noel Coward's celebrated piece of advice, it might go something like this: "Do put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington, and when she's taking her curtain call, climb up there with her." On Saturday night, after Venus Williams had kept the US Open title in the family with some truly awe-inspiring tennis, her old man skipped onto the court, embraced her, and danced a celebratory jig. Unlike the retiring folks of defeated finalist Lindsay Davenport, he doesn't waste time in the wings.

If Richard Williams were to rewrite Noel Coward's celebrated piece of advice, it might go something like this: "Do put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington, and when she's taking her curtain call, climb up there with her." On Saturday night, after Venus Williams had kept the US Open title in the family with some truly awe-inspiring tennis, her old man skipped onto the court, embraced her, and danced a celebratory jig. Unlike the retiring folks of defeated finalist Lindsay Davenport, he doesn't waste time in the wings.

Earlier this year this cotton-picker's son from Shreveport, Louisiana - alumnus of a school called Little Hope - proclaimed his intention to buy Manhattan's Rockefeller Centre for $3.9bn. "If I'm reaching for the stars and all I get is the moon, I don't care," he explained. "You should set your goals real high and if you fail, did you really fail at all? I'm a singer now also. I plan to push Michael Jackson if I can." You have to hand it to him. Of this curious new breed of overbearing tennis fathers, also featuring Messrs Pierce and Dokic, he is by far the most engaging.

But there is another breed, in which he also looms large, that interests me more. It cannot be coincidental that Venus and Serena Williams, and Tiger Woods, and the Olympic 800 metres runners Hazel and Joetta Clark, are children of charismatic black Americans of a certain age, men who have pushed their kids from their first uncertain steps to the summit of sporting achievement.

In fact Earl Woods - who has written a best-selling book on the subject, Training a Tiger - started pushing even before Tiger could walk, strapping him into a high-chair and swinging a golf club in front of him for hours on end. Tiger duly started copying the action. But because he was facing his father, he swung in a mirror image. "One day," Earl recalls in the book, "he stopped in mid-swing and changed from swinging left-handed to right-handed.

"At the same time, he changed his grip to that of a right-hander. He did that when he was 10 months old. That was when I knew I had an exceptional son." It might be glib or simplistic of me to find a connection between Richard Williams, Earl Woods and Joe Clark, but I wonder whether this lust for success on behalf of their children has its origins in their own early twenties, when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing? Having lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and talked at length to the elders of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King was pastor, I know not to underestimate the effect on a generation of black Americans - especially men - of the disintegration of hope represented by King's assassination in 1968. The famous 1963 march on Washington had promised so much, and much was achieved, yet by the 1970s it was painfully clear that the old racial order wasn't going to change that much, that if blacks wanted to reach the mountain-top King had described, they would have to work uncommonly hard for it. And in a society still so bedevilled by colour-based prejudice, sport offered a clearer sight of the mountain-top than most other fields of endeavour.

Here endeth the lesson, although it might be worth returning to if the Clark sisters dominate the podium in Sydney, as seems likely. Incidentally, their old man, unlike Richard Williams and Earl Woods, owes his fame to more than having raised famous offspring. Indeed his achievements in the 1980s as principal of Eastside High, one of New Jersey's most notorious schools, gained him the ultimate American accolade - a Hollywood movie about his life, Lean on Me, in which he was played by Morgan Freeman.

Eastside High was evidently a drugs-ridden hell-hole before Clark, wielding a big stick, turned it into something vaguely resembling a place of learning.

In so doing, he was feted all the way to Ronald Reagan's White House, and is now similarly uncompromising as head of Essex County Juvenile Correction Centre, in Newark, New Jersey. He rules his daughters with a rod of iron, too, much to the disapproval of one American sports commentator, who has accused him of "warping" rather than helping them. Apparently, Joetta, 37, originally wanted to be a sprinter. But Clark refused to let her become "a black stereotype". Hazel, who is 15 years younger, didn't even want to be a runner. She preferred skating.

Whatever, it seems clear that there are strong racial elements in the rise and rise of Hazel and Joetta, Tiger, Venus and Serena. Joe Clark, however, has no time for people who blame the ills afflicting American blacks on American whites. For him, the blame lies entirely with the break-up of the family unit, endemic among Afro-Americans. "The young men in this jail are here largely because parents, especially fathers, do not assume moral responsibility," he thundered recently. "Anyone who does not provide for the children they brought into the world should be horse-whipped and run out of town." While he, Richard and Earl take a bow in the town square.

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