Williams, Venus and Serena

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Williams, Venus and Serena

The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are the two most prominent African-American female tennis players since Althea Gibson (19272003). Participating in a sport that has traditionally been dominated by whites, they have been ranked among the top players in the world of tennis,

and they have introduced a style of play that combines power and grace in a way never before witnessed in professional women's tennis.

Venus Ebone Starr Williams was born in Lynwood, California, on June 17, 1980, and Serena Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on September 26, 1981. Both are the daughters of Richard and Oracene Brandi Williams. Serena is the youngest of five daughters, and Venus is the second youngest. Both grew up in the suburbs of Compton, California. Their early playing careers evolved while competing on the public courts in the housing projects of Watts and Compton. Although this was an area that was full of violence, gangs, and high rates of homicides, they prevailed to become two of the elite tennis players in the world.

The family moved to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, so that the sisters could train under coach Rick Macci, a well respected and established tennis professional. Mr. Williams looked to further his dream of both his daughters one day dominating the tennis world.

Venus Williams turned professional in October 1994, winning her first professional match against Shaun Stafford at the Bank of West Classic in Oakland. Venus participated in the event to avoid a new Women's Tennis Association (WTA) rule, to be phased in beginning in 1995, limiting the number of events in which fourteen-year-old girls could compete. As of 2005, Venus had won thirty-one WTA tour singles titles and nine doubles titles, and she had earned over fourteen million dollars in prize money.

Serena played in her first professional tournament (the Bell Challenge) in 1995. She went on to win the mixed doubles title with Max Mirnyi in July 1998. Serena officially won her first WTA tour singles championship in 1999 (the Open Gaz de France in Paris). As of 2005, Serena had won twenty-six WTA singles tournaments and eleven doubles titles. She has also won each of the four Grand Slam singles titles. As of early 2005, her career prize money totaled over fourteen million dollars.

In addition to their tennis winnings, both Venus and Serena have signed lucrative endorsement contracts. In 2003, Venus signed a five-year endorsement deal worth forty million dollars with Reebok, reported to be the richest contract ever for a female athlete. She also signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Avon Products Inc., and she has designed a collection of leather apparel sold exclusively at Wilsons Leather. In November 2003, Venus launched her own interior design business, V Starr Interiors. Serena signed an endorsement deal with the sneaker company Nike that, with performance related endorsements, could net her sixty million dollars. She also has endorsement deals with Avon Products Inc., Close-Up, McDonald's, Wilson Racquet Sports, and Wrigley/Doublemint.

When Serena met Venus in the finals of the U.S. Open in 2001, it was the first time in history that two sisters had made it to the finals of a Grand Slam tournament. They have since become the first two women in history to square off in four consecutive Grand Slam finals. (At one point Serena held all four major championships at the same time.) When Venus won Wimbledon in 2000 and Serena won the U.S. Open in 1999, it was the first time in tennis history that two sisters had each won a Grand Slam singles title.

The Williams' domination of tennis has illuminated several social and cultural aspects of the sport. Women's professional tennis has historically been predominately white. The way in which the sport of tennis had been traditionally viewedsocially, economically, and culturallyhas now been challenged by the insurgence of the Williams sisters. Mainstream tennis followers have witnessed a style of tennis unlike that previously played by women, and in the process of playing tennis the Williams sisters have altered the traditional role of women in the sport. Wearing braids and beads in their hair, with stylish attire and a unique style of play, the Williams sisters brought a new energy to women's tennis. Accompanying this new and distinct style came conflict and controversy. The spectators, media, and athletes on the tour had not experienced the style of play, charisma, and flair that was on display, on as well as off the court. Suddenly, a consciousness of race and culture were infused into tennis in a scope unprecedented in the game's history.

Controversy has surfaced throughout both of the Williams' careers, and both have been subject to adverse situations during matches. In the 2003 French Open against Justine Henin Hardenne, Serena was subject to catcalls and was booed loudly by the crowd. In Indian Wells, California, in 2001, Venus was scheduled to face Serena and withdrew due to medical reasons. In the ensuing match against Kim Clijsters, Serena was loudly booed and the crowd of 16,000 was boisterous and cheered when she double faulted. Some speculated that Venus's withdrawal was done to gain or maintain both of their rankings. Serena and Venus were accused of fixing their match, while their father stated "it was the worst act of prejudice he had ever witnessed." He also claimed that ethnic slurs were directed towards Venus and him while exiting the match.

Controversy has also been directed towards the Williams' and their commitments to tennis. Several critics have expressed concerns about their involvement in fashion, movies, and other outside activities, although other players, particularly Anna Kournikova, have had similar outside activities, and Maria Sharapova, another young Russian tennis star, is also commanding large endorsement deals.

Venus and Serena Williams' presence in tennis goes beyond the sport itself. Together they have redefined the sport, not only with their athletic ability, but with the contemporary style, exposure, and infusion of African-American culture. They have had a marked effect on the media, marketing agencies, sponsorships, and young women around the world. They have also embraced the notion of social activism by meeting issues of race and culture within the world of tennis head on. The world of sport has benefited socially and culturally, and a new dimension of multiculturalism is being seen in the sport. The galleries are now filled with professional athletes, actors, and movie stars of multiple ethnicities. They have provided star power to the sport and infused it with aspects of African-American culture. In the process, they have changed the path of tennis immeasurably.

See also Ashe, Arthur; Gibson, Althea; Sports; Tennis


Lapchick, Richard E. "Athletes Transcending Race: How Is It Possible?" Sports Business Journal (June 2005).

Rossner, Scott R., and Kenneth L. Shropshire, eds. The Business of Sport. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.

fritz g. polite (2005)

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