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Williamses knew it was coming

The Williams patriarch prepared his daughters for fame and success long before he predicted it.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002


Venus and Serena Williams still were in elementary school in Compton, Calif., when their father decided to give them a crash course in news conferences. Confident the girls would become tennis stars, Richard Williams left nothing to chance and every now and then brought out a camcorder, simulated postmatch interview sessions and did his best Dick Schaap imitation by asking them tough questions about their play.

Unconventional?

Not for Richard Williams.

Sometimes at practice, the elder Williams, also his daughters' coach, had people stand off to the side of the court, not to support Venus and Serena, but to jeer them in hopes of bracing them for hostile environments.

"I trained them for all of that so they'd be ready for anything that came their way," Richard Williams said from his home in Palm Beach Gardens.

It worked.

Venus, 22, and Serena, 20, rank 1-2 in the world, respectively, the first time siblings have occupied those spots. By most accounts, the Williams sisters are bigger, stronger and faster than their rivals. And some, including their father, have suggested they also might have an edge upstairs.

"They're mentally tough," Richard Williams said. "I tried to teach them that good thoughts and actions never produce bad results."

The sisters' combination of physical and mental strength has made them the talk of 2002 (sorry Anna).

Venus is the top seed at Wimbledon, where she has won two straight titles. Serena, the second seed, leads the WTA Tour in earnings and beat Venus two weeks ago in the French Open final. Each sister has a tour-best four tournament titles in 2002. The duo has combined to win six of the past 11 Grand Slam championships. Two of the past three Grand Slams have featured an all-Williams final.

Though Venus is ranked higher, Serena is having the better season. Her titles came in bigger events, she is unbeaten against Venus (2-0) and third-ranked Jennifer Capriati (3-0) and has a 29-3 match record.

Venus' most recent title came at the Bausch & Lomb Championships in April, where she lost the first set in the final to Justine Henin and trailed 4-1 in the second before rallying for a 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 win. Venus is 35-5 in 2002 and has won four of the past eight majors. Just as impressive: She's 18-1 at Wimbledon since 1999.

"I wouldn't bet against either one," Richard Williams said. "I don't know anybody playing that will go out and beat each one."

When Richard Williams boasts today, nobody blinks. But long before Venus and Serena became household names, he raised eyebrows among the tennis establishment by boldly predicting his daughters would become the world's two best players.

"I think he knew he put the work in and that we were listening to him," Venus said earlier this year.

As Venus and Serena became formidable professionals, they couldn't escape their father's enormous shadow. He claimed his daughters were victims of racism on tour, and after Irina Spirlea and Venus had an oncourt collision between games at the 1997 U.S. Open, he referred to Spirlea as "a big, tall, white turkey." His words, and actions, drew criticism from media and tennis legends (Chris Evert and John McEnroe come to mind).

"All of what Richard says is calculated," former No.1 Lindsay Davenport said. "He does all that on purpose, to get a rise out of the media, to get some attention. And so that Venus and Serena stick together."

The elder Williams, 60, still coaches his daughters and still speaks his mind, but attends fewer events and is, as he put it, "doing his own thing." While Venus and Serena played in the French Open, he was in New Orleans on business. As of last week, he was unsure if he would attend Wimbledon.

"Venus and Serena were always able to function themselves," Richard Williams said. "It doesn't surprise me they're doing these things."

At this point, who is surprised?

Much like golf's Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena seem capable of winning on any surface at any time and against any opponent. Because Venus and Serena are in separate draws at Wimbledon, another all-Williams final is possible.

"I'd love to see Williams vs. Williams," Richard Williams said. "I just think they have to show up. If they play their game, I don't think anybody will get many points (against them) at all. ... I wouldn't want to be on the other side of the draw of either one."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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