Shooting tragedy leaves Williams sisters' careers in doubt

John Roberts
Tuesday 08 October 2013 21:02
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Venus Williams slumped in the players' tunnel during an hour-long rain delay at Wimbledon last July, tearful and distressed, nursing damaged muscles in her abdomen. She had lost the opening set of her semi-final against the Belgian Kim Clijsters, and wanted to quit the match.

The 23-year-old American was being comforted by her mother, Oracene, and her four sisters, Serena, Yetunde, Lyndrea and Isha. Oracene and Yetunde, 31, the eldest of the sisters, did not want Venus to regret giving up the chance of appearing in a fourth consecutive Wimbledon singles final. So they coaxed her to go back on the Centre Court.

Venus overcame Clijsters in three sets and went on to lose to Serena, the youngest sister, in the final. While this was not the ideal way for Venus to end the championships, she had done her best, and the event was yet another triumph for the family, perhaps their last joyful moment for some time to come.

Yetunde was shot dead on Sunday in Compton, a notorious southern suburb of Los Angeles, where the family used to live and where Venus and Serena started to play tennis on the park courts.

At the time of the murder, Venus was in New York and Serena was in Toronto, each pursuing their interests outside tennis. As soon as they heard the tragic news they went to Los Angeles to mourn.

Venus and Serena, who share a house in Florida, do not have the same father as their three older sisters, and have been elevated by talent and hard work into a life of fame and riches. Oracene and Richard Williams have divorced, but Venus and Serena have remained as close as possible to their parents and their sisters.

"They don't regard themselves as half-sisters, they regard themselves as sisters," said Raymone Bain, a publicist for Serena. "The five girls are each others' best friends."

Yetunde, a registered nurse, had a beauty shop in Los Angeles. She also acted as a personal assistant to Venus and Serena, booking flights, arranging hotels, making reservations for their visits to restaurants, the theatre and the cinema; generally helping to smooth the way when they were on the tour.

In a poignant article in the 15 September edition of People magazine, Yetunde said she no longer has to give her famous younger sisters life lessons. "Maybe three or four years ago I'd remind them to stay grounded, but not now," she said. "They've both got good heads on their shoulders."

Grief and trauma has halted the round of flights to tournaments, and the tennis community is left wondering when the brilliant Williams girls, who dominated the women's game with the power of their strokes and the strength of their will, are likely to play again.

Injuries prevented Venus and Serena from competing at the United States Open, which they had dominated for the previous four years. But the wound inflicted by Yetunde's death is deeper.

The tournament calendar is now but a scrap of paper showing that Venus is scheduled to play in Moscow at the end of this month and in Filderstadt, Germany, on 6 October; that Serena is down to play in Linz on 20 October; and that both sisters are booked for Philadelphia on 27 October and for the WTA Tour Championships in Los Angeles on 3 November.

At a media conference in New York during the US Open, Venus and Serena deflected speculation that they were losing interest in tennis and wanted to expand their creative flair, saying they expected to be playing for another10 years.

Nonetheless, Serena was filming in Toronto when news of Yetunde's death came, and she has appeared as often on the front pages attending celebrity events as she has on the back pages winning tournaments this year.

"I'm an actress, I'm a model and an athlete. I put athlete third on my list," Serena said in April.

Venus is studying for a degree in interior design and also designs a line of women's clothing. Her father dropped hints in the past that he expects Venus to leave tennis within a few years, though that might have been a motivational ploy. He keeps saying that he is working on his autobiography, Method in My Madness.

The two Belgians, Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, contested the women's singles final at the French Open and Henin defeated her compatriot again in the US Open final in the absence of the Williams sisters. Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne are No 1 and No 2 in the world respectively.

After losing to Henin-Hardenne in front of a baying crowd at the French Open, Serena was later in tears in the interview room. "Story of my life," she sobbed. "All my life I've had to fight. I've got to be a little stronger next time."

When, and if, Venus and Serena do resume their astonishing careers, the world of tennis will expect them to be stronger still, and to be welcomed back with a groundswell of support that has often been denied them in the past.

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