Venus and Serena Williams vs the world: The inside story on the making of two titans of tennis

When John Jeremiah Sullivan was preparing to interview the Williams sisters about their impact on sport over 17 years, it was looking like a ‘legacy’ story. Then they started a remarkable fightback this summer...

There's video that exists of Venus and Serena Williams playing tennis when they were kids – eight and seven, respectively – in the late Eighties, 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."

She sat at a round, empty table in the meeting room at the Hyatt hotel, first messing with her dog, a little terrier-like creature, and then placing it inside a duffel bag, where it apparently liked to hang out, because it stayed completely silent there for the better part of two hours, not even receiving any treats or anything. "He's unemployed," she said, forcing him with her fingers to make a face at me.

Because she's usually frowning and scowling on court, or squinting and chewing the inside of her mouth, or looking bummed in the changeover chair – or finally at the end sometimes grinning and laughing maniacally – it's easy to find yourself unprepared for her sheer prettiness, as witnessed when she's more or less at ease, six-foot-one in pale designer jeans, quietly flashing the smile that made her at one time the richest woman in sports (before Maria Sharapova came along).

I was trying to bring the person across the table into some kind of stereoscopic harmony with the girl on the tape, the one whose short, beaded braids hang like a fringe of tassels on the side of her head. It showed her hitting big, swinging volleys from midcourt at about the skill level of a decent college player, except that she was catching them up above her head, scything the fed balls out of the air with enough topspin to send them arcing down toward the lines. After an especially good shot, Richard would say, "Good shot, Venus," and Venus would say, in dulcet tones that retained a trace of his Louisiana syrup, "Thank you, Daddy".

Richard addresses the camera directly. Venus and Serena stand on either side of him, taking shelter in the shadow of his legs as if the camera might not find them there. Richard reveals to Braden that they have been watching his popular tape, Tennis Our Way, quoting his fantastically optimistic slogan, "You'll be famous by Friday". Richard can't remember the exact wording. "You kept saying we'd be good by Friday," he tells Braden. "We was good by Tuesday. We should be great by Friday."

The remarkable thing about the tape, from the point of view of someone interested in tennis, isn't the almost voyeuristically candid preflight glimpse it gives of some soon-to-be superstars, but simply the footage of Venus hitting. She doesn't bounce on her feet yet between every shot, she hasn't fully learnt that readiness; she just stands there, in her jeans, waiting to be fed the next ball. Nor is it even the excellence of her technique, although her technique, it goes without saying, is ridiculous for an eight-year-old. It's more something that she doesn't even know she's doing, something having to do with the transfer of force, of mass, from the back of her body to the front, and the way that this transference is passed along into the shot, the way it enters her racket head at precisely the millisecond she hits the ball, resulting in a kind of popping sound, the distinctive pop in ball-striking that signals someone who can really play, the thing you simply cannot and will never learn to do if you are a hack or even a pretty good player who has hit that cruel ceiling, the limits of your own physical ability, beyond which you cannot progress, even after decades of lessons and work, but beyond which some eight-year-old girls can go and indeed beyond which they were born. It's the tyranny of talent. Watching this little girl do it, watching her have it, that lays it bare, undeniably evident, extracted from the game like the Higgs boson from those protons.

I asked Venus about this tape, if she remembered it at all. She did, she said (vaguely, I sensed), but in general she tries not to look back, preferring to remain "at a continuum of moving forward".

If Braden ever watched the tape, there survives no mention of it. He must have had parents trying to sell him on their little prodigies every day, and even if he had noticed – as he could not have failed to – that the girls, especially the older one, possessed the proverbial "thing that can't be taught", there was plenty else in the tape to put him off. The father's boasting (relatively subdued, for this performance) has about it the whiff of slight insanity. The way he keeps mentioning the "famous by Friday" business, the way he talks about the girls not as promising youngsters but as celebrities, as princesses, as if he worships his own creation. His Southern accent verges at times on the unintelligible. "Stay in touch with us," spoken pathetically, hopefully, toward the end of the tape, sounds like, "Stain touch widders".

Although he has been the subject of excellent profile writing (notably in Sports Illustrated, by SL Price and L Jon Wertheim), Richard Williams remains an eternally elusive and evasive figure. I find him powerfully and movingly American somehow. His whole personality seems to have evolved as a complex reaction-structure to an insecurity so profound that it must remain secret, especially from him. Throughout his daughters' careers, he has gone about fanning a splendour of boxing-promoter language, of lies, half-truths, boasts, misstatements, non sequiturs, buffoonery, needless exaggerations, megalomania, paranoia – as well as here and there genuinely wise, amusing lines – all of which, you begin to feel, are designed (subconsciously, yes, but no less shrewdly) to deflect attention away from a still, small centre, the place where he dwells and operates. It's there that he is who he is, whoever he is.

Richard Williams often receives an undue share of attention in discussions of the Williams sisters, their game and how they got started. Partly this is appropriate: he's their coach. Partly it's because, for many years, he demanded, or at least commanded, that attention with his bizarre pronouncements and antics. But all of this has led to a persistent distortion in the telling of the Williams story, which is, after all, a story of powerful women – not just Venus and Serena, but the household of women who surrounded and nurtured them.

In the beginning, there were three sisters, none of whose names you may have heard: Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea. They were Oracene Price's daughters from her first marriage. Oracene became Richard's second wife when they married in 1980. So Richard lived in the house in Compton with four women – three girls and their mother – just as he had grown up in Shreveport, Lurr-zeeana, as he pronounces it, in a neighbourhood whose school was called, amazingly, Little Hope – with three sisters and Julia Mae. He had recreated the dynamic of his childhood home.

When he and Oracene first began to talk and dream about founding some kind of tennis dynasty – in the oft-heard tale, it happened after Richard watched a women's match on TV and heard that the victor, Virginia Ruzici of Romania, would receive $30,000 for her efforts, just for smacking a ball, as th ey say – Richard first taught Oracene to play. He himself had taken up the game not long before, and he quickly became quite good. But Oracene, too, was an athlete. In her youth she played volleyball and played basketball with her brothers ("Till they got bigger than me").

"It was like a family recreation early on," she told me. "I myself learnt to play in a year. I always wanted to learn and to learn the right way, like a professional. And Richard would show everyone my backhand."

She explained that because she was pregnant with Venus when they first started hitting together, the traditional way of hitting a backhand – turning to the side and twisting your torso – didn't feel comfortable for her. "I would hit the backhand open," she said. At the time, the shot was rare and barely existed at all in the women's game. "I made it into a comfortable stroke. I knew I'd feel better if I was low, and then I'd just whack it."

At first they began with Oracene's three children. Yetunde, the oldest – who was shot and killed in 2003 in Compton – wasn't especially athletic. But Isha, many people believe, could have been the third Williams sister, if not for her back problems, and Lyndrea went on to play at college level. But although the two girls were good, they weren't great – perhaps they hadn't been exposed early enough.

With Venus and Serena, Oracene said, "it's almost like they were raised on the court". She remembers Serena as a toddler, off to the side while they played. Oracene noticed early that something was different about their game. "They still weren't as athletic as me," she said – a thing you learn quickly about Oracene is that she says exactly what she means and never says anything she doesn't mean, to a degree that can be intimidating and even seem aggressive until you realise that it isn't negatively charged, she's just very unto herself – "but I did notice one thing: they had a natural swing. That's what I looked for first." She didn't elaborate on that, but I knew what she meant – the pop. It was the unquantifiable kinesiology of the pop. These two new daughters had it. (Richard would later claim that they were engineered for it, by an express and all but eugenical logic – he saw Oracene's long, powerful gams and thought they would make great legs for a tennis player. Jehovah God knows if these things are true, but it feels like something he might have thought.)

Richard and Oracene had become uncannily expert, if unavoidably eccentric, tennis coaches and analysts by the time Venus and Serena started hitting. Indeed, behind the minor miracle of there being two tennis virtuosos in this single family with no previous tennis background, there had been the previous miracle of both parents' understanding the game well enough to teach and guide the girls. "I don't honestly know how that happened," Venus told me in Cincinnati. "It's interesting. I don't know how my parents were able to learn the game so well."

The story has been told so many times, of these early years, when Compton got used to the sight of the little girls who would always be playing tennis at the public park – or riding around in their faded yellow VW bus with the middle seat taken out to accommodate the grocery cart full of balls – but somehow the strangeness and drama of it retain a power to fascinate. The idea of this African-American family organising itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow. "I remember even talking to my sisters and brothers," Oracene said, recalling a time before anyone had ever heard of the Williams sisters, "and telling them: 'The girls are going to be professional.f We're going to need a lawyer, and we're going to need an accountant'."

Isha, the middle daughter – sharply funny and practical, fiercely loyal to the family – told me: "Life was get up, six o'clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis. But it was consistency. I hate to put it [like this], but it's like training an animal. You can't just be sometimey with it." She still can't sleep past six.

"For the most part," she said, "Venus would be on my dad's court, Serena would be on my mum's court, and we'd jump. It was like this rotating system." All the sisters agree that Oracene's court was the toughest. Richard liked to play games and goof, but their mother was all business and was matter-of-fact in her criticisms. "Even now," Serena wrote in her book, Oracene is "one of the best at helping to break down my game." In conversation, Isha points out that it's always her mother who goes with Serena to the Australian Open, not her father. "And she's won the Australian five times."

Oracene did not grow up a Jehovah's Witness. She belonged to a religious family in Michigan but lacked a church to attend in LA. Some Witnesses came to her door one day, and she liked their message, with its emphasis on their strict interpretation of the Bible. In 1984, just as Venus and Serena were picking up rackets for the first time, Oracene was baptised and began raising her girls in the faith. Richard never did convert. He read some of the teachings, but he was not and is not a Witness. As much power as he possessed in the family, there remained a kind of inner circle – of women and faith – of which he remained outside, which may go some way toward explaining how the girls can both revere him and roll their eyes at him. He's their father, but he's other. Among themselves, the women in the family maintain what Oracene, quoting Colossians, calls "a perfect bond of union". When I spoke with Lyndrea, the youngest of the three older girls (and perhaps the most unforcedly sweet of all the sisters; about Lyn, as they call her, there was nothing forbidding or closed), she was in the car on her way to the Kingdom Hall in Los Angeles to give a talk. And when I asked Isha if the girls ever went around house to house, the way Jehovah's Witnesses do, she said yes, she had been "out in service" with Venus and Serena. "It's a trip, too," she said, "people be blown away."

It's impossible not to feel that this fierce closeness of the Williams women – strengthened by their shared faith, with its emphasis on separation from the world – has had not a little to do with the tremendous psychological stability Venus and Serena have demonstrated over the nearly 17 years of their careers. It's amazing to think, but when this article was first in the planning stages, it was conceived as a story that would mark the decline of their careers, the beginning of a conversation about their legacy. The word "retirement" had begun to appear in discussions of both sisters. This wasn't writing them off; it just seemed like an accurate read of the situation. Venus found out she had Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that often causes severe joint pain, among other symptoms. She'd fallen quite far back in the rankings, because of a lack of match play. The illness dogged her for years, until the doctors finally figured out what was wrong. It had been hard for her to accept that she was sick. "I spent my whole life playing sports and training and pushing myself to the limits," she told me. "When you get told that you have a disease, it's like: 'Really? Nah, it's all right. I don't believe that. It must be something else, I'm just making an excuse, let me push harder'."

Serena, meanwhile, had cut a tendon in her foot with a piece of glass, requiring several operations, which led to a pulmonary embolism. She also suffered a giant hematoma, caused by one of the shots she took to prevent another embolism. Naturally their fitness suffered. It seemed, frankly, physically impossible that the sisters would ever regain the tip of the tennis pyramid. A good time to talk about what they had meant to the game, how they had changed it and been changed by it.

But this summer, Serena won Wimbledon again. Then she won the Olympic gold medal in women's singles. Then she and Venus (Venus actually playing slightly better than Serena, according to Serena) won gold in women's doubles. The whole thing was a joke, a comedy. The Williams sisters were dominating tennis again. Serena, in her final match, machine-gunned her one-time rival Sharapova off the court so brusquely and efficiently, it looked as if she had an urgent appointment somewhere that she couldn't miss. Venus, in closing out the gold-medal doubles match, hit what she felt was the best shot of her career. Her description of it in Cincinnati was beautiful (it can be hard to get tennis players to talk about their game in an analytical way). "I did a play that I normally don't do," she said. "Something moved my body.

"Serena was serving from the ad [advantage] court, and I don't really like to cross, to poach on the ad court, because I usually like to poach when I have a forehand. I'm thinking: I gotta help Serena out, because she always helps me on my serve. I'm not helping her enough.

"All this is going through my head. So my plan is like, I'm gonna go over, but I'm not gonna go too early; I don't want [the other player] to see me. But this is all subconscious almost. The next thing I know, I've left. I don't remember making my body move. I'm just hitting the shot. Now, I have a great one-handed backhand volley. But I hit it two-handed! I don't know what happened. It was like watching myself from above when that happened, and I feel like, this is the best shot of my whole life."

I asked Oracene what she felt, watching her daughters reclaim the heights after what they'd been through. "Honestly?" she said. "I reflected on the fact that in the United States, you don't have many players that are doing well. And then you have these two old, black girls, up in age now, and they're still holding up America. That to me was remarkable." I thought about it. She was right. There isn't another American right now who's capable of really penetrating at a major. Or maybe, in fairness to Andy Roddick and a couple of other people, it's better to say that there isn't another player whose penetration at a Slam would not make your eyebrows jump. It's just these two girls, these two sisters. They're what America has right now.

I met Serena in Paris, where she spends several months of each year. She lives in af quiet, pretty part of the Seventh Arrondissement, in a beautiful but not ostentatious apartment that she described as "humble". It had black floors and big airy windows that let in the sound of children playing on the pavement below. Most of the furniture and art pieces were things she picked up at the outdoor markets in Paris. She showed me a binder full of her plans for the interior design.

There had been some mix-up about the time. I'd stood there buzzing for about 10 minutes. Suddenly the door bolted open. The assistant, I thought, maybe coming down to explain. But it was Serena. In purple spandex workout pants, a white top and sunglasses, her hair natural and a little wild, the way she's wearing it these days.

"You're early," she said.

"Really? I thought it was seven."

"I thought 7.30."

"I'm happy to hang out for a while."

"No," she said. "Walk with me." She needed something from the pharmacy.

As we walked, she moved back and forth between French and English. Her French was good. Even very good. I had always heard this about the Williams sisters, that they were into languages. But you know how it is with some people – they take a Berlitz course and tell you they can speak Russian. She was expressing herself in the language, charming the Greek guys in the little take-away joint where we stopped, where she seemed to order one of every dish they had. They couldn't hold sample spoons out to her fast enough. I thought what I'd been thinking for months: that I knew more or less nothing about the Williams sisters. They like it that way, you get the sense. Not many people get very close. This, of course, warps the perception of them by the public and the media. It feeds the idea to many people that there's something weird and aggressively off-putting about them. They both seem conscious of the trade-off and OK with it.

When we returned to her apartment, she asked, "Do you want a drink drink?" She had just flown in, and there was nothing in the place but Jack Daniel's, which she poured for me on the rocks, showing a non-showy graciousness I didn't expect. "That oughta get you going," she said with a laugh. She didn't have any herself. (Jehovah's Witnesses are allowed to drink in moderation, but whiskey wasn't part of her training regimen.)

She had a row of books on her shelf, the kind of beige, 19th-century books you find in the stalls along the Seine (which turned out to be where she found them). I asked if she read any of them. "No, I just bought them for show," she said. They were beautiful; they made good décor. One faced out, on the end. It was a biography of Toussaint Louverture, the former slave who led the Haitian revolution near the end of the 18th century. The book's cover had a great old colour illustration of him on horseback, brandishing a sword. His blue-and-red coat and grey-black face.

Because she seemed to be handling uncomfortable topics surprisingly well, I moved on to maybe the second-biggest oncourt scandal of her career – her notorious outburst at a lineswoman who had made a questionable foot-fault call against her during the 2009 US Open. To be fair, the call looked bogus in replay, and Serena has suffered enough bad calls at that tournament – some that were almost surreally so, including one in a 2004 match against Jennifer Capriati – to justify a little paranoia. Even so, she went over the line and said things that would have scared the living hell out of me if I'd been in that chair.

"How do you feel about that now?" I asked.

"I was definitely stressed, and I was angry," she said. "I don't foot-fault. Like, I have in the past, but this woman should never make a call in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam on a person who doesn't foot-fault. She was totally wrong. I'm sorry. I'm not sorry. I looked at her like – I tried to warn her. And then she did it again. And I'm thinking, 'This is ridiculous'."

"But you admit you went over the top?" I said.

"What bothered me most was that I was representing my religion. I just felt like anyone who knew I was a Witness was stumbled. And I really don't want to stumble anybody." Indeed, Oracene had told me that the Witnesses called Serena in for a dressing-down. "They had to have a talk with me," Serena said. "And I knew it was coming. I just felt really bad, though, because it's like, that's not who I am."

"How does that work?" I asked. "Were you summoned by a minister?"

"They just talk to you," she said. "They show you Scriptures. Not ministers, they call them elders. It's almost like a reprimand, but it's not bad, because in the Bible it says God loves you, and if someone reprimands you, they love you."

She went on, talking about how "every year at the Open something happens. Like last year I got a point penalty because of a grunt. Meanwhile, I can name five girls who grunt way louder than I do, and the umpire didn't even give them a warning. And then I had the ball called out that was this far in. It's always something. I'm thinking, already, something's gonna happen this year at the Open. I'm just thinking, Serena, say your prayers, fall on your knees. It's frustrating, because it's my home country, you're playing for the home, but it's like, the way the umpires have been makes me not want to play there. I'd rather play in Australia, or I'd rather play at Wimbledon."

The window behind us had an exquisite view of Paris in the twilight. Looking past me, she said: "I love how the city's all even. I love how you can see the sky. You can't have too many tall buildings. I mean, there are a few, but for the most part, it's Old World. I like it."

Something about her life there, the little I glimpsed of it – she had told me how she liked being alone in this place, how she would "come here just to be around nobody" and how she liked the way people in this neighbourhood didn't make a big deal out of her – it gave me the sense that she was hiding there. From what, though? From America, probably, a country that couldn't decide if she was a goddess or a threat. And from her father. In the latter case, at least, she had been successful. His energy was nowhere in that apartment. This was what I was seeing, I realised, in meeting both Venus and Serena. They have quietly absconded from his shadow.

Venus had even joked about him in Cincinnati, when I asked her if he was still their coach. She rolled her eyes. "Sometimes he'll send lengthy e-mails," she said. "Sometimes they're really long, and I don't read them. I get the gist. He's very, very into it. I think he loves it most. Out of all of us, I think he loves tennis most."

In fact, not even Oracene accompanied the girls to Cincinnati. "They're probably tired," Venus said. "They say, 'We're over it, we'll stay at home'." Her smile had levels I wasn't equipped to explore. It had coyness in it, it had irony in it, it even had some melancholy in it. "We're on our own," she said.

Copyright © 2012, John Jeremiah Sullivan. All rights reserved. A longer version of this article first appeared in 'The New York Times'

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