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The Williams Sisters: Rise to Stardom

February 10, 2014 12:24 PM
Venus Williams.
Serena Williams.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
For Venus and Serena Williams, products of a loving family in Compton, Calif., success was not an accident. Their father, Richard, was a sharecropper from Louisiana who was a self-taught tennis pro, learning the game from what he had read in books and seen in video to instruct his daughters on public courts a few miles north in Los Angeles. Living in Compton, a city with some of that nation’s highest rates of crime and gang activity, was also Richard’s way of educating his girls: there would be real-world consequences if they didn’t work hard and get an education.
From playing on courts riddled with potholes and tattered nets, Venus and Serena have gone on to win a combined 24 Grand Slam singles championships, 13 majors in doubles and five Olympic gold medals, blazing a path for future generations of African-American tennis players.
They’ve been to the apex of the tennis mountain and have had to overcome life-altering maladies to remain in the pro ranks. In early 2011, Serena received emergency treatment for a pulmonary embolism and blood clot in her lungs, thought to be a byproduct of a foot surgery that had kept her from the courts for the better part of a year. Venus withdrew from the 2011 US Open citing a bout with Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes chronic fatigue, and missed nearly over six months of action afterward.
By 2012, both sisters had fought through their rehabilitation and were back in the game playing alongside one another, winning their fifth Wimbledon title together in women’s doubles and a third gold medal during a magical summer run at the Olympic Games in Great Britain. A year later, Serena became the oldest woman in the Open era to earn the World No. 1 ranking, a perch where she remains to present-day at the age of 32.
The sisters have also excelled away from the court, searching and working for equality both for women and African-Americans. Venus wrote essays and led a victorious fight for equal prize money at the French Open and Wimbledon, the major venue where she’s had her most victories, in 2007. And Serena is a recognized contributor to the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America in Greater Los Angeles, coming full circle and serving the community in which she honed her craft.
Their legacy, however, may lie in those they’ve inspired. A wave of up-and-coming African-American female tennis players is just coming into its own, from the pro ranks down through the juniors, and Serena and Venus have inspired countless recreational players to take up the sport as well. It’s one thing to take a journey from the pocked courts of Compton to the top of the international tennis stage; it’s another to take an entire generation along with you.


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