Williams, Serena 1981–
Serena Williams 1981–
Professional tennis player
Early Career Marked By Father’s Direction
Became Best Player in the World
Ranked number one in the world among female tennis professionals in 2002, Serena Williams had become one of the sport’s most exciting and closely watched young players. With her older sister Venus, she formed half of a tennis-prodigy pair that had been making headlines from an early age. As an African American in a historically white- and European-dominated sport, she found herself in the spotlight and under scrutiny. Serena and Venus Williams were coached by their father Richard, an unorthodox career-builder whose methods stirred comment and controversy. Beyond all these reasons Serena Williams caught the attention of tennis fans simply because she was a player of extraordinary ability and dynamism. She has risen to the very top of her game winning five Grand Slam events in two years and being ranked in the top five female tennis players in the world for over three years.
Serena Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on September 26, 1981, but she and her sister were raised in the economically depressed and often violence-riddled Los Angeles suburb of Compton. Her father, Richard Williams, ran a private security firm, and her mother, Oracene (who often uses the name Brandy), was a nurse. A fan of televised tennis, Richard Williams dreamed of the opportunities that might await his offspring-to-be: “I went to my wife and said, ‘Let’s have kids and make them tennis players,’” he told Newsweek. Venus, born in 1980, and Serena, the youngest daughter, showed promise from the start. “Venus and Serena took to tennis as soon as rackets were put in their hands,” older sister Lyndrea told Sport magazine.
Early Career Marked By Father’s Direction
The sisters’ early training took place on public tennis courts in and around Compton, where they remember having to duck gunfire. Despite this difficult beginning, though, their skills developed rapidly. Serena entered her first tournament at the age of four and a half, and over the next five years, her father has claimed, she won 46 of 49 tournaments she entered. She succeeded Venus as the number-one player in southern California’s highly competitive age-12-and-under rankings, and well before reaching adolescence both sisters had attracted national attention in the form of invitations to prestigious tennis camps, promises of lucrative product-endorsement deals, and glowing newspaper reportage.
In 1991 Richard Williams, who managed and coached both Serena and Venus, made the first of several unorthodox moves in regard to his daughters’ career: he decided that they should enter no more tournaments on the national junior circuit. Junior tournaments are the usual path to stardom for young tennis players, so Serena’s development as a player took place to some degree in isolation from her peers. Richard Williams has said that he hoped to avoid subjecting his daughters to competitive pressures, including an undertone of racial hostility. Serena and Venus were sent to the Florida tennis academy of teaching pro Ric Macci, who had also worked with teenage standouts Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce, and thanks to Richard’s canny handling of a clothing endorsement deal, the family
At a Glance…
Born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, MI; daughter of Richard (a security agency owner and tennis coach) and Oracene (Brandy) Williams (a nurse). Education; Attending Art Institute of Florida, Religion: Jehovah’s Witness.
Career: Professional tennis player, 1995-; actress, 2002-.
Memberships: Women’s Tennis Association.
Selected awards: Won six Grand Slam tournaments including 1999 and 2002 U.S. Open, 2002 French Open, 2002 and 2003 Wimbledon, and the 2003 Australian Open; won six Grand Slam doubles tournaments including 1999 U.S. Open, 1999 French Open, 2000 and 2002 Wimbledon, and the 2001 and 2003 Australian Open; won WTA Championship, 2001 ; won Olympic gold medal for doubles tennis, 2000; WTA number one ranked player in the world, July 8, 2002-August 10, 2003; Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, 2003; ESPY for female tennis player of the year and female athlete of the year, 2003; Sportswoman of the Year, Laureus World Sports Academy.
Addresses: Office —c/o USTA, 70 W Red Oak Ln, White Plains, NY, 10604–3602.
was able to move to a rambling estate in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. In 1993 both girls left school and continued their education at home.
After raising eyebrows by pulling his daughters out of the junior circuit, Richard Williams once again stirred talk in the tennis world by allowing them to turn professional at the age of 14. Still banned from World Tennis Association (WTA) events at that age, Williams made her professional debut in October of 1995 at the non-WTA Bell Challenge in Vanier, Quebec, Canada, losing in less than an hour to a virtual unknown. But her father, who has defenders as well as critics on the tennis circuit, offered constant encouragement, and the play of both sisters improved dramatically. “Nobody knows those girls better than their parents—the road they’ve gone on couldn’t have been better selected,” legendary coach Nick Bollettieri told Newsweek. Williams took 1996 off, playing in neither WTA nor non-WTA events. Her father felt that she needed more training to develop and he was also working on Venus’s professional career as well.
Quickly Rose in WTA Ranks
Williams’ first professional match in the WTA was in Moscow in 1997 where she was taken out in the first round by a highly ranked player. Many critics claimed that she did not have the talent of her older sister, who was slowly climbing the ranks of the WTA, but that perception was soon to change. Williams qualified for an Ameritech-sponsored tournament in Chicago where she was slated to face Mary Pierce, who was ranked number seven in the world, in the second round. She staged a stunning upset over Pierce, beating her in only two sets. This advanced her to the quarter finals where she faced an even more difficult opponent, fourth-ranked Monica Seles. At first it seemed that Williams had given her all in the match against Pierce as she dropped the first set to Seles. Then, in a shocking turn of events, Williams rallied and won the next two sets, defeating Seles. The critics who had said that she showed little promise only a few weeks before now spoke of her as the next rising WTA star, which was reflected in her ranking, which jumped from 304 to 102 after the tournament. She would finish 1997, her first full season with the WTA, with a ranking of 99.
By the following year her world ranking had risen as high as number 21, and both Williams and her sister, Venus, were bona-fide celebrities. She served notice that her time had come when she advanced to the semifinals of a Sydney, Australia tournament by beating the then third-ranked woman in the world, Lindsay Davenport, who went on to become the United States Open champion that year. Expected to do well in her first “Grand Slam” tournament, the Australian Open, she had the bad luck of having to face her sister in the second round after ousting ninth-ranked Irina Spirlea in the first round.
Venus emerged victorious, and Essence magazine reported that she was heard to say, “I’m sorry I had to take you out, Serena,” as the two sisters walked off the court. This was the first time that the public caught a glimpse of the relationship between the two sisters and how they work not only to be the best for themselves, but also to motivate each other. “They haven’t admitted to it, but there’s definitely a competitiveness between Serena and Venus,” former U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver told Sport. “They motivate each other and feed off each other’s successes. Venus’ jump to a No. 10 ranking has definitely inspired Serena to improve her ranking,” she continued. The sisters met again that year in the Italian Open this time in the quarter finals where once again Venus took the victory.
1998 continued to be an excellent year for Williams as she continued to succeed beyond expectations. She began to play in doubles play and won two other doubles titles that year with Venus in Oklahoma City and Zurich. Her victory in Oklahoma City became Williams’ first pro title in doubles, but it would not be her last. She also went on to win two mixed double titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with partner Max Mirnyi.
1999 was a watershed year for Williams as it would be the one in which she won her first singles title as well as a Grand Slam tournament. Ranked number 21 at the beginning of the season, her first single title came at the Paris Indoor tournament where she defeated Amelie Mauresmo in three sets. From there she went on to win Indian Wells where she plowed through Lindsey Davenport, Mary Pierce, and number seven ranked Steffi Graf to gain her victory. Williams was on a 16-match win streak when she met up with Venus again in the finals of a tournament in Miami, defeating Seles, Coetzer and number one ranked Martina Hingis in straight sets. While she did lose to her sister again, Williams did crack the top ten of the rankings for the first time, becoming the ninth best player in the world.
Williams’ biggest match of the year, however, came when she entered the U.S. Open. Her road to the finals took her through fourth-ranked Seles and second-ranked Davenport, and once she had defeated them, she had to face number one ranked Hingis. But when the final match was over, Williams had won her first Grand Slam tournament in record setting fashion. She became the lowest seeded player to ever win the title as well as the second African-American woman to win a Grand Slam title. The only thing Williams had not done yet was to beat her sister Venus, and that happened later that year where the sisters met in the finals of the Grand Slam Cup. It seemed that nothing could stop Williams and that she was poised to take over the world of women’s tennis.
Plagued by Medical Problems
Williams was forced to slow down at the end of 1999 when she began to have health issues that took her out of numerous matches. She withdrew from a tournament in Hilton Head with patella tendonitis in her right knee and also left the quarter finals at the German Open with a strained right elbow. Perhaps the most crushing moments for Williams came when she was forced to withdrew from Wimbledon with severe influenza and from the season-ending championship (which she had qualified to play in that year for the first time) with a back injury sustained in practice. Regardless of her inability to compete, Williams still ended the season ranked number four and was prepared to rise even higher in 2000.
2000, however, would be another season that was impacted by injury and health problems. While she was able to defend her Los Angeles title by defeating Hingis and Davenport and also won a title at Hannover, she suffered from a right knee ligament injury that many suspect lead to her defeat at the Paris Indoor tournament. She entered the Canadian Open and was dominating in a match against Hingis, but was forced to retire when one of the small bones in the base of her left foot became inflamed. This would be her most serious injury all season and would result in her withdrawing from the U.S. Open doubles competition during the semi-finals round and completely from the championship. The final blow came in April when she left the second round of the Amelia Island tournament with a meniscus tear in her left foot. Williams finally decided to take some time off and heal, hoping to rebound later in the year.
By June of 2000 Williams was healthier than she had been the entire season and she qualified for Wimbledon. She quickly showed that she was back on track by advancing to the semi-finals round losing only 13 games in five matches, the least amount of games lost since Chris Evert in 1976. In the semi-finals round however, Williams once again had to face her sister Venus. The Star-Ledger called the match “the event of year in tennis and watershed event for a sport that has spent more than a decade in the doldrums.” The match ended up being a let down to many—Venus won in two sets 6–2, 7–6—but it proved to Serena that while she had won a Grand Slam title in the past, she still had room to improve on her game. As she told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, “I expected to play a lot better than I did today. It was my goal to do better in this tournament.” Even though Williams felt that she was not at the top of her game, she did leave the 2000 season with two very distinct wins, one for doubles at Wimbledon and a gold medal for doubles at the Summer Olympics in Australia, both with her sister Venus as her partner.
Became Best Player in the World
The 2001 season started out slow for Williams when she lost twice to Hingis, once in Sydney and once at the Australian Open. She did, however, find victory again in the doubles tournament of the Australian Open with her sister Venus. As doubles partners, the Williams sisters seemed undefeatable. Peter Tatum, an executive at the IMG sports marketing firm told the Star-Ledger, “They play a different type of game, come from a different place, and have a different attitude than virtually anything the game of tennis has ever seen.” While Venus would continue to succeed early in the season, Williams seemed to continue down a familiar path she had traveled in 1999 and 2000 when she withdrew from the Paris Indoor tournament with fatigue and from the Scottsdale tournament with the flu. While she did win a title at Indian Wells over Kim Clijster, she fell to Capriati in the quarter-finals round in the Miami tournament and withdrew from the Charleston tournament, the Italian Open, and the Madrid tournament because of knee injuries.
Williams bounced back to win the Canadian Open over third-ranked Capriati who had knocked her out of Wimbledon that year in the second quarter-finals round. Then Williams dominated the U.S. Open defeating Davenport and Hingis on her way to the finals where she once again was matched up against her sister Venus. It was the first time that the sisters had ever met in a Grand Slam final and while the match-up proved to be much more exciting than their semi-final round in Wimbledon the previous year, Williams still walked away defeated by her older sister. While Williams took the loss hard, she used it as a stepping stone to improve even more and by the end of the season, she was in peak form and for the first time was healthy enough to compete in the WTA Championship. She advanced to the finals where she faced Davenport, but the match was never played for Davenport withdrew with a knee injury. While Williams has said she would have rather played the match to prove that she was the best player that year, she still walked away with a major win, her first since her U.S. Open win in 1999.
Finally, in 2002, Williams hit her stride and began to rack up the victories. She started off slow with an ankle injury in the Australian Open, but went on to win a major tournament in Miami, where she beat the three top players in the world, Hingis, her sister Venus, and Capriati, on her way to the title. From there, she only continued to succeed. She took the Italian Open victory from Capriati and then captured the French Open title, beating out Venus for the first time in a Grand Slam competition and rising to number two in the world rankings, bested only by her number one ranked sister Venus. The sisters got a chance at a rematch later that year when they met in the finals of Wimbledon, where once again, Williams defeated Venus to take the title. To Williams, this was the most important win of her career to date, because, as she told the Sunday Mercury, “it has so much prestige and so much history.” As in past years, Williams also competed with sister Venus in the doubles competition at Wimbledon and came away with another title, their fifth Grand Slam victory as a team.
After Wimbledon, Williams quickly snatched the number one ranking away from Venus and for the next year held on to it with amazing play on the courts. She once again defeated Venus, this time in the U.S. Open, her third straight Grand Slam for that year. She also won numerous other tournaments both in single and double play including the Princess Cup in Tokyo and the Leipzig tournament, but ended up losing the WTA Championship to Kim Clijster in two sets. The following season she started off strong by winning her fourth straight Grand Slam event, once again beating Venus in the finals at the Australian Open and became just one of five women to have ever held all four Grand Slam titles at one time. The Williams sisters took the doubles title as well at the Australian Open, their sixth straight. Williams went on to win the Paris Indoor tournament and Miami tournament before losing in the Charleston tournament finals to Justine Henin-Hardenne, ending a 21-match winning streak.
Sought Other Avenues
While Williams reigned supreme in 2002 and early 2003, the early summer of 2003 was a rollercoaster of failure and success. The first major setback came at the French Open when Williams rematched with Henin-Hardenne in the semi-final round. She made 75 unforced errors and lost the match in three sets, but even worse for Williams was the Parisian crowd reaction which included heckling Williams when she challenged calls, or starting chants in favor of Henin-Hardenne, a European favorite. The heckling got so bad that it drove Serena to tears by the end of the match. As she told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, “I think it’s bad when people start booing in between serves. Or other people egging them on by doing ridiculous things. That gets a little tough, too, you know.”
Many people wondered if the French Open was the beginning of a downturn in Williams’ play, but they were soon proved wrong a month later when Williams stormed back to win her second straight Wimbledon against sister Venus. Unfortunately, Williams reinjured her knee during doubles play in Wimbledon and withdrew from the Los Angeles tournament, the Canadian Open, and the U.S. Open. She hopes to still compete in the WTA Championship later in the year if she has properly recouped from the injury.
Because of her massive amount of success in tennis at such a young age as well as her recent health problems on the court, Williams has been looking in other areas to diversify herself. As she told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve never considered tennis as my only outlet. I’ve always liked doing different things when I was younger. I just never really liked focusing on tennis. I do see myself as a crossover.” Included in Williams’ ventures outside of tennis is studying for a degree at the Art Institute of Florida, designing outfits with her sponsor Puma, and doing guest spots on television shows. In late 2002 she appeared on an episode of ABC’s My Wife and Kids and she is scheduled to appear in October of 2003 in an episode of the Showtime series Street Time. She has also been offered roles in feature films in Hollywood, but has yet to make the leap to the big screen. Williams told the Star-Ledger that she is still waiting for the right part: “I believe I’m a good actress and I have a lot of skill I would like to do something that challenges my acting skills and get people to see the skills I do have.”
Williams was filming her role on Street Time when she learned of the death of her half-sister, Yetunde Price, in September of 2003. Yetunde and a companion had been driving on a street in Compton, California, when she was shot. Police investigation turned up one suspect, and they were looking for more. Reports indicated Price was caught in the crossfire of two gangs. Price was a divorced mother of three children, whom Williams and her sister, Venus, have vowed to help raise. Yetunde was also a registered nurse and personal assistant to the two tennis stars. She also co-owned a beauty salon.
Whether she continues to dominate in the world of tennis or heads in a different direction, most critics and supporters alike agree that Serena Williams will succeed. As Janice Spector, Avon’s vice president for advertising, told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service about Avon spokesperson Williams, “She goes beyond tennis but what really interests us is she is a wonderful contemporary role model for young women. She’s achieved something wonderful. She’s smart and she’s her own person. I think her recent successes have only enhanced her confidence.”
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—James M. Manheim and Ralph G. Zerbonia
American tennis player
Together with her older sister, Venus Williams , Serena Williams has taken the tennis world by storm, soaring to the top of a game traditionally dominated by white players. For Serena, 2002 was particularly sweet. The year didn't get off to a particularly auspicious start. A sprained ankle forced Williams to miss the Australian Open in January 2002, but things brightened up considerably for the remainder of the year. She won seven of her next 12 events, winning three of the four 2002 Grand Slam tournaments—the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—and snatching from sister Venus the number one world women's ranking. In recognition of her impressive performance in 2002, Williams, along with Australian Lleyton Hewitt, was named International Tennis Federation world champion in December. As 2003 dawned, Williams became only the fifth woman in tennis history to hold all four Grand Slam titles, beating Venus in the finals of the Australian Open. Of Williams' brilliance on the tennis court, tennis great Chris Evert , told People : "Serena really is too good. I'd like to see some players get close to athleticism, and I don't see it yet on the horizon."
Born in Saginaw, Michigan
Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on September 26, 1981, 15 months after older sister Venus. The youngest of the five daughters of Richard and Oracene (nicknamed Brandi) Williams grew up in the gritty Los Angeles suburb of Compton, where her father ran a private security firm. Richard Williams, long a fan of televised tennis competition, resolved that he would teach all of his daughters to play the game. The three oldest Williams girls showed only minimal interest in and little aptitude for tennis, but both Serena and Venus showed promised from the very start. Of her younger sisters' enthusiasm for the game, older sister Lyndrea told Sport magazine: "Venus and Serena took to tennis as soon as rackets were put in their hands." Their father taught his daughters on the public tennis courts of Compton. Both girls' skills developed rapidly, and by the age of four-and-a-half Serena entered her first tournament. Over the next five years, according to her father, she won 46 of the 49 tournaments she entered and succeeded Venus as the number one player in Southern California's competitive age-12-and-under rankings. It was not long before both girls began winning national attention in the form of favorable coverage in both broadcast and print media, invitations to prestigious tennis camps, and offers of lucrative product endorsement deals.
In 1991 Richard Williams, who has served as both coach and manager to his youngest daughters from the start, pulled Serena and Venus out of the junior tournament circuit, preferring to shelter them from the competitive pressures of the tour. Instead he opted to send his girls to teaching pro Ric Macci's tennis academy in Delray Beach, Florida. From 1991 until 1995 the Williams girls studied with Macci, who had also worked with Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce . While studying tennis with Macci, the sisters were home-schooled by family members. After a few years, they were enrolled at Driftwood Academy, a private, 30-student high school in Lake Park, Florida. In 1993 the Williams family moved from Compton to a new home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Serena graduated from Driftwood in August 1999 with a B-plus average.
Father Takes Charge of Career
After the Williams sisters left Macci's tennis academy in 1995, their father, with the help of his wife, once again took over the responsibility of coaching the girls. Even more importantly, he devoted a great deal of his time and energy to promoting his daughters, publishing a newsletter about the girls' background and training. He also used the newsletter to blow his own horn, claiming that he had come to be known as "'King Richard' … Master and Lord of the ghettos in Compton, CA." Of Williams' blatant self-promotion, Julia Reed wrote in Vogue that he "has a reputation for being a bit pompous and not just a little bit irritating. But he is also wickedly funny."
Serena turned professional in October 1995, making her debut at the Bell Challenge in Vanier, Quebec, an event not sanctioned by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA). She lost quickly to her opponent, a virtual unknown. For the next few years, she lived in the shadow of Venus, who shot up into the top 10 in women's tennis, while Serena as of the end of 1996 had been unable to break into the top 500. In 1997, however, things began to look up for the youngest Williams, who began the year ranked at number 453 and before long rose to number 307. Later in the year she jumped to number 100 among women players in the space of a single week. At the Ameritech Cup tournament in Chicago late in 1997, she upset number four Monica Seles and number seven Mary Pierce before losing to third-ranked Lindsay Davenport . Williams' wins over Seles and Pierce made her the lowest ranked player ever to defeat two top-ten players in a single tournament. An injury forced Serena to pull out of the doubles competition with sister Venus.
Enters First Grand Slam Tourney
At the age of 16, in January of 1998, Williams entered her first Grand Slam tournament—the Australian Open—after winning a qualifying match. Facing off against second-seeded Davenport, who had defeated her at the Ameritech Cup in late 1997, she turned the tables, handily winning the match. Venus shocked top-ranked Martina Hingis . When the two sisters met on the court in the second round of the finals, Venus carried the day, taking the match 7-6, 6-1. Just to show there were no hard feelings, a smiling Serena and Venus posed for photographers after the match.
|1981||Born in Saginaw, Michigan, on September 26|
|1991-95||Studies tennis at Ric Macci's academy in Delray Beach, Florida|
|1995||Makes professional debut at Bell Challenge in Vanier, Quebec, Canada|
|1998||Enters Australian Open, her first Grand Slam tournament|
|1999||Graduates from Driftwood Academy of Lake Park, Florida, in August|
Related Biography: Father/Coach Richard Williams
The biggest booster of Serena and Venus Williams is their father, who has also served as their coach and manager from the very beginning of their tennis careers. In fact, it's doubtful either Williams sister would be playing tennis at all were it not for Richard Williams' fervent belief that he could raise his daughters to be champions on the court. Working with the three older sisters of Venus and Serena, Williams had had little success, but his two youngest girls took to the game from the start.
Despite his undeniable success in coaxing and coaching Venus and Serena to positions of dominance in the sport, Williams continues to come under fire for some of his unorthodox techniques but mostly for what he has to say about his perceptions of racism and the stuffiness of the people who run the game. He also shows no lack of confidence in his ability to guide his daughters to tennis stardom. He admitted however, to Kevin Chappell of Ebony that sometimes the criticism hurts. "When people criticize you, I don't care how much you say it doesn't bother you, it does. It bothers you when people criticize you, especially when you're doing the best that you can do. Because once you are doing the best you can do, you realize there is nothing else you can do. They are criticizing you, and you can't fight back, you can't make a noise. It's almost like someone has beaten you dead. It's somewhat disturbing."
When Serena, his younger daughter with former wife Oracene, was still quite young, Williams moved his family from Saginaw, Michigan, to the dicey neighborhoods of Compton, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He taught his girls the game on the public tennis courts of Compton, an area so riddled with gang violence that the girls had to be schooled in how to dodge errant bullets. In 1991, he sent Serena and Venus off to Florida to train at the tennis academy of Ric Macci in Delray Beach. Both girls turned professional by the age of 14 and have been guided by their father through every step of their careers.
After losing her match with Venus at the Australian Open in January 1998, Serena trailed her sister in the rankings, but she was the first of the two to win a Grand Slam title. Still only 16 years old, she teamed with Max Mirnyi of Belarus to win the mixed doubles tournament at Wimbledon in July of 1998. Although the spotlight was still trained on Venus, more and more observers of the game began to predict that Serena, with her power, eventually would overshadow her older sister. By August of 1998, Serena's ranking had improved to number 21. Whatever the fans or critics were saying, nothing seemed to have any effect on the close relationship between the sisters. That relationship—seemingly strengthened by their occasional face-to-face meetings on the court—captured the interest of the media, which ran numerous features about the sisters. Away from tennis, the two loved to gossip about boys and shop, the latter pastime easily
financed by the sisters' lucrative product endorsement deals. In 1998 Serena signed a $12 million deal with Puma, helping her to keep pace with Venus, who had an equally impressive deal with Reebok.
Beats Mauresmo to Win First WTA Title
Williams won the first WTA title of her career early in 1999, overpowering Amelie Mauresmo of France 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 in the Open Gaz de France tournament in Paris. In besting Mauresmo, Serena became the first American ever to win that tournament. Making the victory even sweeter for the Williams family was an almost simultaneous win by Venus in the IGA Super Thrift Tennis Classic in Oklahoma City. Serena followed her Open Gaz victory with a win over Steffi Graf at the Evert Cup tournament in Indian Wells, California, the very next week, grabbing her second WTA title in a row. During a three-week period ending with her defeat of Graf in California, Serena won 11 consecutive matches. In an interview with Michael Silver of Sports Illustrated, Williams made it clear who she saw as her main competitor. "Whatever my potential is, I want to reach it now," she told Silver. "And if I do, I see Venus as my biggest competition."
The head-to-head sibling rivalry of which Serena spoke was not long in coming. On March 28, 1999, Venus beat her younger sister 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Florida. The Williams faceoff marked the first time in more than a century that two sisters met each other in a tennis tournament finals match. The previous match between sisters had come in 1884 when 19-year-old Maud Watson beat older sister Lillian, 26, at the first women's Wimbledon. Serena's loss to Venus at Key Biscayne was not really the first time she'd fallen to her older sister but actually her third consecutive loss to Venus, the others coming at the Australian Open and Italian Open in 1998. Despite these defeats, Serena was moving up impressively in the world tennis rankings, finding herself at number 10 by mid-April 1999.
Wins First Singles Title
Later in 1999 the Williams sisters teamed up to win the doubles title at the French Open. The sweetest victory came for seventh-ranked Serena at the U.S. Open in 1999 when she became the lowest seed to win the women's title since 1968. In taking her first Grand Slam singles title, Williams became only the second African-American woman to do so. The win boosted Serena's world ranking to number four, the highest ranking of her career. Although she'd started out way back in the rankings, Serena now found herself running neck and neck with Venus. On the heels of Serena's singles victory at the U.S. Open, the sisters teamed up again to win the doubles title at the U.S. Open, making them the first African American team to do so in the history of the tournament.
In July 2000, Venus defeated Serena in the semi-finals at Wimbledon. Crushed by the loss to her older sister, Williams left the court in tears, as Venus attempted to comfort her. Serena bounced back to join her older sister to take the women's doubles title at Wimbledon, marking the first time the event had been won by a sister team. In 2000 singles competition, Serena took her first singles title of the year by defeating Denisa Chladkova of Czechoslovakia at the Faber Grand Prix. Perhaps the high point of the year for both Serena and Venus came at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Team Williams defeated the Dutch team of Miriam Oremans and Kristie Boogert, 6-1, 6-1, to take the gold medal in women's doubles.
Williams won her first singles title of 2001 at Indian Wells, California, with a victory over Kim Clijsters, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. At the Australian Open that year, she advanced to the quarter-finals, where she fell to Martina Hingis, who later defeated Venus as well. In doubles competition, the Williams sisters once again triumphed. Later that year Serena was stopped by Jennifer Capriati in the quarter-finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon. At the U.S. Open, Serena and Venus faced off against each other in the women's finals, where Venus carried the day, winning the match 6-2, 6-4.
What was to be the brightest season yet of Serena's tennis career started off on a decidedly unpromising note. Williams was forced to sit out the Australian Open in January 2002 because of a sprained ankle. But the injury was not to keep her down for long. Serena won seven of her next 12 events, replacing Venus as the number one-ranked woman in tennis. In an interview with People, she said: "I'm physically strong but mentally stronger. I think if you have the attitude that you can do anything, you really can." Williams proved conclusively that she had the right attitude by taking three of the big four Grand Slam titles—the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—in 2002. The following year got off to a promising start, as a healthy Serena nailed the last of the four Grand Slam tournamments for the season, beating sister Venus in the finals of the Australian Open.
Still in her very early 20s, Serena Williams has made an indelible impression on the world of tennis, quickly moving up through the ranks of the game to draw even with older sister Venus and then to moving into the number one ranking. Only time will tell what lies ahead for Williams, but of one thing she is certain: "Family comes first, no matter how many times we play each other," she told Sports Illustrated. "Nothing will come between me and my sister."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1997||Becomes lowest ranked player (no. 304) to defeat two top 10 players (Mary Pierce and Monica Seles) in a single tournament|
|1999||Wins first WTA title by beating Amelie Mauresmo in Open Gaz de France|
|1999||Wins first Grand Slam singles title at U.S. Open; teams with Venus to win U.S. Open doubles title|
|2000||Advances to semi-finals at Wimbledon but falls to sister Venus|
|2002||Defeats Venus to win singles title at French Open|
|2002||Wins Italian Open with defeat of Justine Henin|
|2002||Wins Wimbledon singles title|
|2002||Wins U.S. Open singles title|
|2003||Wins Australian Open singles title.|
Address: c/o Women's Tennis Association, 133 First St. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
"Serena Williams." Complete Marquis Who's Who. Marquis Who's Who, 2001.
"Serena Williams." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 20. Gale Group, 1998.
"Serena Williams." Newsmakers 1999, Issue 4. Gale Group, 1999.
"Serena Williams." Who's Who Among African Americans, 14th ed. Gale Group, 2001.
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Fendrich, Howard. "Little Sister Gets Her 'Serena Slam.'" AP Online, (September 8, 2000): 128.
Harris, Beth. "Serena Williams Advances to Final in WTA Championships; Venus Williams Injured." AP Worldstream, (November 11, 2002).
"Hewitt, Serena Williams Named 2002 World Champions." AP Worldstream, (December 3, 2002).
O'Connor, Ian. "Richard Williams Getting the Last Laugh." USA Today, (September 6, 2002).
Price, S.L. "A Grand Occasion: While Serena Williams Blitzed the Women's Field, Pete Sampras Won His Fifth U.S. Open and Left No Doubt That He's the Greatest Men's Player Ever." Sports Illustrated, (September 16, 2002): 52.
"Serena Williams: Queen of the Court." People, (December 30, 2002): 99.
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"Serena Williams: Biography." Tennisrulz.com. http://www.tennisrulz.com/players/swilliams/biography.htm (January 19, 2003).
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Sketch by Don Amerman
September 26, 1981 • Saginaw, Michigan
Beginning in the late 1990s, Serena Williams became one of the world's most talented and exciting tennis players. With her outgoing personality, unique fashion sense, and striking good looks, Williams would have commanded attention even if she hadn't been a topranked professional player. But her skills on the court happen to be extraordinary, the result of years of training, natural ability, and a powerful determination to win. Williams has gained additional attention as an African American athlete in a sport generally dominated by white players. Her 1999 singles victory at the U.S. Open made her only the second black woman ever to win a Grand Slam title; Althea Gibson (1927–2003) was the first. The Grand Slam tournaments—the Australian Open, Roland Garros (better known as the French Open), Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—are among the game's most visible and significant events for pros.
By Williams's side—and often across the net—has been her older sister, Venus, an equally commanding player. Both sisters spent several years at the top of the world tennis rankings, each reaching the number-one position in 2002. As of the summer of 2004, Serena Williams had won six singles titles in Grand Slam events as well as numerous doubles titles, including a gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. An ambitious, multitalented person, Williams has also, since 2002, explored acting, appearing in several television episodes and pursuing film roles as well. In addition, she has, along with her sister, studied fashion design.
"Just watching her is inspiring. I just want her to have it all. To be honest, I want more for her than I do for myself."
Venus Williams, People magazine, June 28, 2004.
From diapers to tennis skirts
The youngest of five daughters born to Richard and Oracene (who goes by the nickname Brandy), Serena and the rest of the Williams family moved from her birthplace of Saginaw, Michigan, to Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles, California, when she was a baby. An economically depressed area, Compton is a rough, often violent neighborhood, and the Williams sisters occasionally witnessed exchanges of gunfire. An avid fan of tennis, Richard Williams envisioned his daughters as champions even before they were born. He bought books and instructional videotapes, teaching himself and his wife how to play tennis so they could then teach their daughters. Both Serena and Venus showed promise at a very early age, prompting their outspoken father to begin making predictions about their future success in the tennis world. Coached by her father, Serena entered her first tennis tournament at age four and a half, and her father recalls that, over the next five years, she won forty-six of the next forty-nine tournaments she entered. She and Venus both excelled in the highly competitive preteen circuit in Southern California, both attaining a number-one ranking in their respective age groups. Before reaching their teen years, the sisters had begun attracting attention far beyond the borders of their home state. They received offers for endorsement deals from sporting-goods companies and invitations to prestigious tennis camps.
In 1991 Richard Williams withdrew the girls from junior tournaments, a decision that was widely criticized by tennis insiders. The junior circuit is accepted as the conventional path to tennis stardom, but Richard wanted to protect his daughters from the intense competition and from what he perceived as racial hostility from other players. Richard invited teaching pro Rick Macci—who had earlier coached such tennis stars as Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati—to come to Compton and watch his daughters play tennis. Macci came, and he was impressed by the sisters' skill and athleticism. He invited them to study with him at his Florida academy, and soon after, the family relocated to the Sunshine State. The proceeds from a clothing endorsement contract for Serena and Venus allowed the family to purchase a home in Palm Beach Gardens, not far from the tennis school.
Grand Slam Victories
Serena Williams has won numerous singles and doubles titles at Grand Slam events (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open). Below are listed her victories through the end of the 2003 season:
Australian Open, 2003
French Open, 2002
Wimbledon, 2002, 2003
U.S. Open, 1999, 2002
Doubles (all with sister Venus):
Australian Open, 2001, 2003
French Open, 1999
Wimbledon, 2000, 2002
U.S. Open, 1999
Mixed Doubles (both with Max Mirnyi):
U.S. Open, 1998
By 1993 the girls had left school, opting to continue their education at home and spend as much time as possible honing their tennis skills. Later they both returned to a school setting, enrolling at a small, private school called Driftwood Academy. Williams graduated from high school in 1999. In 1995, at age fourteen, Williams turned pro, arousing controversy among many who felt athletes should be older before they become professionals. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the governing body of women's professional tennis, barred competitors from WTA events at that age, so Williams's first pro event was a non-WTA tournament in Quebec, Canada. She was quickly eliminated from that competition. Her introduction to professional play indicated that she needed additional training time, and Richard decided that his youngest daughter should take a break from competition for the remainder of that year and the following year as well.
A tentative beginning
Williams began 1997, her first year as a WTA competitor, in the shadow of her sister, who had shown herself to be a promising young player. The Ameritech Cup in Chicago, however, made it clear that Serena Williams was more than just the little sister of Venus: she was a budding star in her own right. At that tournament, she shocked observers by defeating Mary Pierce, then ranked seventh in the world among women players, in the second round. Further defying expectations, Williams went on to defeat fourth-ranked Monica Seles in the quarterfinals before losing to Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals. She completed the 1997 season ranked ninety-nine, an impressive debut year for a sixteen-year-old player.
She continued to build her skills and confidence in 1998, beating a number of players ranked far above her. One such victory—beating ninth-ranked Irina Spirlea in the first round of the Australian Open—led her to a matchup against her sister in the next round. Venus won that match, a victory that aroused complex emotions for both sisters. Venus, accustomed to her role as big sister, wanted to take care of and protect her sister. Serena had spent most of her life looking up to Venus and working to be just like her. Both sisters, however, also felt an intense drive to win, regardless of who is on the other side of the net.
The Williams sisters have since met many times as opponents. Some observers have suggested that they lack their usual passion when they play each other, a charge both have denied. Such matchups do result in mixed feelings, however, with the victor feeling both triumphant and regretful. Serena and Venus are best friends, but they are also intensely competitive with each other, and each sister uses the other's success as motivation to improve. In a 1998 article, Serena toldSports Illustrated for Kids, "I've learned a lot from watching Venus. Her results have encouraged me to work harder so that I can do well, too."
The Williams sisters have also played together many times as a doubles team, with 1998 marking the first time the sisters won a professional match together. Serena also won two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles that year—at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open—with partner Max Mirnyi. While she had yet to win a major singles title, Williams earned more than $2 million dollars during 1998. The following year proved even more successful, with Williams winning a number of events. Her first singles title of the year was at the Paris Indoors tournament; Venus won a tournament the same day in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, marking the first time in the history of professional tennis that two sisters won championships on the same day—or even in the same week. The professional highlight of the year came when Williams defeated three of the top-four tennis players in the world to win the singles title at the U.S. Open. It was her first singles victory at a Grand Slam event, and the first time in more than forty years—since Althea Gibson's win in 1958—that an African American woman won a Grand Slam singles title. Another 1999 milestone was Williams's first professional victory over her sister, beating Venus in the Grand Slam Cup. The two teamed up to win two Grand Slam doubles events that year, at the French Open and the U.S. Open. Williams finished the 1999 season as the fourth-ranked women's player in the world.
The following two years proved difficult for Williams, with a series of injuries resulting in a number of losses and forcing her to withdraw from several tournaments. High points of the 2000 season included doubles victories, with Venus as her partner, at both Wimbledon and the Olympic Games. The sisters won the doubles title at the Australian Open in 2001, marking their dominance in doubles at all four Grand Slam events.
Having recovered in spectacular fashion from her various injuries and illnesses of the preceding years, Williams seemed unstoppable in 2002. The best players in the women's game were no match for her unparalleled strength and speed on the court. She was victorious in eight out of the eleven tournaments she entered, earning nearly $4 million in prize money. At the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami, Florida, Williams defeated the top three players in the world, including her sister, to win the singles title. This achievement marked one of many history-making wins: she joined tennis great Steffi Graf (1969–) as the only ones to defeat the world's three best players in one tournament. Three times that year—at the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open—Serena met Venus in the finals of a Grand Slam event, and three times she defeated her sister. After her victory at Wimbledon, Williams became the top-ranked women's tennis player in the world. During the U.S. Open Serena wore a one-piece black outfit made by Puma, a company she had signed a hefty endorsement deal with a few years earliers. The outfit—so different from the traditional white tennis dress—attracted nearly as much attention as Williams's playing. The real story of 2002, however, was that she was one of just seven women in the history of the game to win three consecutive Grand Slam titles in a single year.
The following year, 2003, Williams completed her sweep of Grand Slam events, beating her sister to win the singles title at the Australian Open. She won a number of other significant singles titles that year, including a second consecutive win at Wimbledon. She held on to her number-one ranking for over a year, until August of 2003. Williams's extraordinary success was recognized by the cable sports network ESPN during its annual ESPY awards program: she won the ESPY for best female tennis player and best female athlete. The year proved a difficult one regarding injuries, but such problems seemed insignificant compared to the tragedy Williams and her family endured in September of 2003: her sister, Yetunde Price, was killed in Los Angeles, a victim of a random act of violence.
Life outside of tennis
For much of 2004, Williams dealt with a recurring knee injury. She won the NASDAQ-100 Open in Miami for the third year in a row, but at many other tournaments of the year she was either defeated or had to withdraw due to injury. Her pursuits outside of tennis began taking up more of her time as well, particularly her efforts to become an actress. Beginning in 2002, Williams started earning guest roles on various television shows, including My Wife and Kids, Showtime's Street Time, and Law and Order. She also scored a part in Hair Show, a feature film completed in 2004. Williams told Alex Tresniowski of People magazine that she's a natural-born performer: "If I hadn't played tennis, I was destined to be an actress. I'm a complete drama queen."
Williams has, in spite of her tremendous wealth and success, remained down to earth. She is a devout Jehovah's Witness, a Christian denomination that involves intensive Bible study and the preaching of biblical teachings to others. While some have criticized the Williams sisters for what they perceive to be arrogance and unfriendliness, Serena and Venus have also developed a reputation for avoiding petty exchanges of insults among tennis players. As world-famous tennis stars, they have been the subject of numerous rumors and negative reports in the media, but they try to ignore such press. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey for O, The Oprah Magazine, Serena reported that she doesn't care what others think of her—"as long as my family knows who I am. And I know that a lie can't live forever. Most of the lies people tell about us are eventually washed away, so they don't bother me." Williams attributes her levelheadedness to her strong family relationships and spiritual background. "My mom raised us to be strong women," she told Winfrey. "We were taught that things like peer pressure didn't exist for us."
For More Information
Leand, Andrea. "Smash Sisters." Sports Illustrated for Kids (August 1998): p. 34.
Toure. "The Queen." Sports Illustrated Women (December 1, 2002): p. 62.
Tresniowski, Alex. "Second Serve." People (June 28, 2004): p. 136.
Winfrey, Oprah. "Oprah Talks to Venus and Serena Williams." O, The Oprah Magazine (March 2003): p. 186.
Serena Williams. http://www.serenawilliams.com/ (accessed on August 17, 2004).
"Serena Williams." ESPN.com. http://espn.go.com/tennis/s/wta/profiles/swilliams.html (accessed on August 17, 2004).
"Serena Williams." WTA Tour. http://www.wtatour.com/players/playerprofiles/PlayerBio.asp?ID=&EntityID=1&CustomerID=0&OrderID=0&ReturnURL=/&PlayerID=230234 (accessed on August 24, 2004).
Williams, Serena 1981–
Serena Williams 1981–
Professional tennis player
Beat World’s Second-Ranked Player
Observers Predict Future Success
Ranked thirty-first in the world among female tennis professionals by 1998, Serena Williams had become one of the sport’s most exciting and closely watched young players. With her older sister Venus she formed half of a tennis-prodigy pair that had been making headlines from an early age. As an African American in a historically white- and European-dominated sport, she found herself in the spotlight and under scrutiny. Serena and Venus Williams were coached by their father Richard, an unorthodox career-builder whose methods stirred comment and controversy. Beyond all these reasons Serena Williams caught the attention of tennis fans simply because she was a player of extraordinary ability and dynamism. She has the potential to rise to the very top of the game.
Serena Williams was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on September 26, 1981, but she and her sister were raised in the economically depressed and often violence-riddled Los Angeles suburb of Compton. Her father Richard ran a private security firm, and her mother Oracene (who often uses the name Brandy) was a nurse. A fan of televised tennis, Richard Williams dreamed of the opportunities that might await his offspring-to-be: “I went to my wife and said, ‘Let’s have kids and make them tennis players,’” he told Newsweek. His ambitions went nowhere with the first three of his five daughters, but Venus, born in 1980, and Serena, the youngest daughter, showed promise from the start. “Venus and Serena took to tennis as soon as rackets were put in their hands,” older sister Lyn-drea told Sport magazine.
Ducked Gunfire in Practice
The sisters’ early training took place on public tennis courts in and around Compton, where they remember having to duck gunfire. Despite this difficult beginning, though, their skills developed rapidly. Serena entered her first tournament at the age of four and a half, and over the next five years, her father has claimed, she won 46 of 49 tournaments she entered. She succeeded Venus as the number-one player in southern California’s highly competitive age-12-and-under rankings, and well before reaching adolescence both sisters had attracted national attention in the form of invitations to prestigious tennis camps, promises of lucrative product-endorsement
At a Glance…
Born September 26, 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan; Father Richard a security agency owner and tennis coach; mother Oracene (Brandy) a nurse. Education: home schooled for last several years of high school. Religion: Jehovah’s Witness.
Career: Tennis professional. Won 46 of 49 tournaments entered, 1985–1991; trained under Florida tennis pro Ric Macci, 1991-; turned professional, 1995, and made debut at tournament in Vanier, Quebec; victory over second-seed Monica Seles, Chicago, 1997; ranking improved from number 304 to number 21, 1997–98; victory over world’s second-ranked player, Lindsay Davenport, Sydney, Australia, 1998; signed $12 million endorsement contract with Puma, 1998.
Addresses: c/o Women’s Tennis Association, 133 First Street NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.
deals, and glowing newspaper reportage.
In 1991 Richard Williams, who remains manager and coach to both Serena and Venus, made the first of several unorthodox moves in regard to his daughters’ career: he decided that they should enter no more tournaments on the national junior circuit. Junior tournaments are the usual path to stardom for young tennis players, so Serena’s development as a player took place to some degree in isolation from her peers. Richard Williams has said that he hoped to avoid subjecting his daughters to competitive pressures, including an undertone of racial hostility (although they say they have not encountered overt racism as professional players). Serena and Venus were sent to the Florida tennis academy of teaching pro Ric Macci, who had also worked with teenage standouts Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce, and thanks to Richard’s canny handling of a clothing endorsement deal, the family was able to move to a rambling estate in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. In 1993 both girls left school and continued their education at home.
After raising eyebrows by pulling his daughters out of the junior circuit, Richard Williams once again stirred talk in the tennis world by allowing them to turn professional at the age of 14. Still banned from World Tennis Association events at that age, Serena made her professional debut in October of 1995 at the non-WTA Bell Challenge in Vanier, Quebec, Canada, losing in less than an hour to a virtual unknown. But her father, who has defenders as well as critics on the tennis circuit, offered constant encouragement, and the play of both sisters improved dramatically. “Nobody knows those girls better than their parents—the road they’ve gone on couldn’t have been better selected,” legendary coach Nick Bol-lettieri told Newsweek. By 1998 Venus was one of the top ten players in the world. Serena, ranked number 304 in 1997, made her first big splash that year with a victory over second seed Monica Seles at an Ameritech-sponsored tournament in Chicago.
Beat World’s Second-Ranked Player
By the following year her world ranking had risen as high as number 21, and both Serena and Venus Williams were bona-fide celebrities. Serena served notice that her time had come when she advanced to the semifinals of a Sydney, Australia tournament by beating the then second-ranked woman in the world, Lindsay Davenport, who went on to become the United States Open champion that year. Expected to do well in her first “Grand Slam” tournament, the Australian Open, she had the bad luck of having to face her sister Venus in the second round after ousting sixth seed Irina Spirlea in the first.
Venus emerged victorious, and Essence magazine reported that she was heard to say, “I’m sorry I had to take you out, Serena,” as the two sisters walked off the court. It seems likely that whatever the unorthodox twists of their young careers, the success of the Williams sisters has come in part from having each other as training partners, confidantes, and occasional rivals. “They haven’t admitted to it, but there’s definitely a competitiveness between Serena and Venus,” former U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver told Sport. “They motivate each other and feed off each other’s successes. Venus’ jump to a No. 10 ranking has definitely inspired Serena to improve her ranking,” she continued.
Observers Predict Future Success
Indeed, many observers of the two sisters have been moved to wonder which of them might in the end become the stronger player, and some have answered the question in Serena’s favor, noting her deep competitive drive and her powerful physique. “Serena seems built to last,” Newsweek noted, pointing out that “her more compact, muscular frame is ideal for a powerful, all-around game.” Such speculations must have placed pressure on Serena and Venus as they embarked on a tough summer of tournament play in 1998, and major championships eluded them both. Serena suffered through ups and downs in her game in a 6–3, 0–6, 7–5 loss to Spirlea at the U.S. Open in New York; the contest had been widely heralded as a grudge match after Spirlea had collided with Venus during a court changeover in an earlier tournament, but went off without incident.
Although known for antagonizing her fellow players, Serena’s brash confidence, charisma, and impressive physical appearance made her attractive to the advertising departments of major corporations, and she signed a deal worth roughly $12 million with the Puma sporting-goods concern. An intelligent and energetic teenager with interests in many fields outside of tennis—she hopes to become a movie star in time—she could contemplate many different paths when thinking about her future. Richard Williams was even quoted as saying in Jet that he hoped his daughters would quit tennis and move on to other things. But in 1998 it seemed likely that her tennis career had not yet reached the top of its trajectory. “My great moments are in the future,” she told Sport “I have a lot of photos in my scrapbook, but I’m waiting for the right cover shot. It has to be huge, like winning a big title,” she concluded.
Arizona Republic, September 5, 1998, C2.
Essence, August 1998, p. 78.
Jet, September 21, 1998, p. 49.
New York Times, March 16, 1997.
Newsweek, August 24, 1998, p. 44.
Sport, July 1998, p. 70.
Sports Illustrated, June 13, 1994, p. 10.
Wall Street Journal, August 31, 1998, p. A17.
Washington Times, November 1, 1995, p. B3.
Additional information was found at http://espn.sportszone.com/editors/ten/profiles/swilliams.html
—James M. Manheim