Under The Spotlight: The Williams Sisters

By Alex Fenton

This week has witnessed the emphatic return to Wimbledon of Venus and Serena Williams, and having grabbed all the attention during their passage through the opening rounds this week, this is the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the most famous and successful sister act in the history of sport.

For the past ten years, Venus and Serena Williams have dominated women’s tennis and become global superstars along the way. Individually, their Grand Slam statistics are immense. When put together, they are jaw-dropping.

With 29-year-old Serena slightly ahead of 31-year-old Venus individually, the pair together have accumulated a staggering 20 Grand Slam singles titles over the past 12 years. Specifically at Wimbledon, the title has, quite incredibly, been won by the Williams’ sisters nine times during the last eleven years, while they have twice managed to keep the title between them for four years in a row. Furthermore, the only thing preventing a Grand Slam win for either has been, on no fewer than eight occasions, facing their sister in the final.

Often neglected, though, is the fact that Venus and Serena have also become one of the most effective doubles partnerships in tennis history. Really, this should come as no surprise given their singles prowess, and since 1998, the sisters have amassed 12 Grand Slam doubles titles as well as two Olympic gold medals.

The enormity of these feats is accentuated when we consider their upbringing. Born into the deprived neighbourhood of Compton in California, and of African-American ethnicity, the Williams sisters most certainly did not have the traditional tennis upbringing. The sport was – and still is – dominated by the wealthy white middle class.

The credit for beating these odds, goes largely to Venus and Serena’s farther, Richard Williams, and his almost eccentric determination for his daughters to succeed. Richard planned for his children to become tennis aces even before they were born. He bought instructional video tapes on the sport so he and his wife could learn, only to enable them to coach their offspring into future champions. He trained them on California’s public courts and still coaches them both to this day.

He can often be seen in the stands watching his daughters alongside their mother, Oracene Price; although Richard usually can’t be seen when Venus and Serena face each other as he find the experience far too stressful! Famously, before the 2008 and 2009 Wimbledon finals featuring Venus and Serena, Richard flew home before the match as he could not bear to watch, knowing one of his daughters was to lose.

Their success hasn’t always come easily though. The two have had numerous setbacks during their careers, but what makes them true greats is that each time they have overcome these stumbling blocks and managed to return to the peak of their game. In 2003, both were devastated by the murder of their older sister, Yetunde, in a drive by shooting in Compton, their home town. Yet, not long after Venus and Serena were able to turn their grief into determination and dedicate subsequent Grand Slam victories to the memory of their sister.

Characteristic of their ability to reliably overcome their hindrances was Serena’s performance in the 2008 Australian Open. For six months before the tournament began, she had not played any tennis due to injury. She was confident of her ability though, and stated her intention to return as the world’s best. However, many described her as out of shape and Pat Cash went as far as to call her deluded and a lost cause. Emphatically, however, Serena proved all her critics wrong and won the championship to her delight, and the embarrassment of Cash and her other doubters.

This great ability to pick themselves up and succeed in the face of adversity is what gives Venus and Serena every chance of winning this year’s Wimbledon. With Venus not having played for several months due to injury, and Serena having been out for a year due to various health complications including blood clots on her lungs which she described as bringing her close to death, their chances of victory initially look extremely slim. Yet, a look back at their careers and you would be hard pushed to bet against another stunning Williams’s comeback, which in the case of Serena, could turn out to be one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.

Surprisingly, throughout their dominance, the public’s reaction to the Williams sisters has not always been as warm and hospitable as with other champions. Some spectators and commentators have become cynical of their determination to succeed – Pat Cash’s comments being symptomatic of this.

While being quiet and responsible off the court, they both have no problem showing their frustrations or delight on it through screeches or roars and fist pumps. It seems some have grown tedious over their command of the game and bored over their unending drive to win again and again.

However, such a perception is unfair. They deserve much more credit than they have received. Once you understand the odds they faced to succeed, with the challenges their backgrounds posed, then you can not only understand but admire their determination and desire to get ahead. It is this which has enabled them to make a better life for themselves, to overcome the obstacles they have faced along the way and to become some of the all-time sporting greats.

Fortunately, in the coming years this will change. With Venus being 31 and Serena 29, they are nearing their sell-by dates as supreme athletes. A sad truth in itself, but also a blessing. As they encounter the final few years of their fantastic careers people will justly begin to recognise the simply what breath-taking players they have been, how unique and intriguing it is to have had two sisters at the pinnacle of a sport, and the true scale if their achievements.

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