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Williams saga develops nicely

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


WIMBLEDON, England -- In their unique maturation, the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena -- noisy, trademark beads now gone -- are constantly writing new, intriguing scripts for a fresh-era version of Father Knows Best.

* * *

Richard Williams is a street-savvy, iron-willed dad who molded athletically gifted daughters according to one man's beliefs, willing to trample on tennis textbooks while defying traditions and ignoring critics.

I say, it's working royally.

In a sport/business where parents can be demonstratively ugly, putting deep bruises on family names such as Capriati, Pierce, Dokic and Stevenson, the Williams philosophies are offbeat but, on the bottom line, ever amassing gold both artistic and fiscal.

Venus is 20, Serena turns 19 in September. Both have advanced to Wimbledon's fourth round. There is a chance of an all-Williams semifinal, but that could mean Venus would have to overcome an extreme exam against top-seeded Martina Hingis in the quarters.

Serena and Venus seldom chat about sibling rivalry, but the younger Williams stunned big sister by winning the family's first Grand Slam singles championship at last summer's U.S. Open.

"It was her win, not my loss," Venus said Saturday. "One for the Williams family. Rivalry between us is neither in my heart nor Serena's. I'm delighted she won the Open. Bad on me, because I obviously should have worked harder and won a couple of Slams by now.

"Tennis is big for us, but life is far larger. Our sport is just an exciting step on a long, diverse road. Like many people say, the Williamses are different. When I'm an old woman, if tennis is the biggest accomplishment of my life, that will be disappointing."

Richard hammers at total education. Learning many languages. Absorbing history. So what's the problem with a parent who molds two children to top-five global tennis status, earning millions of Williams dollars, while ever broadening the daughters' knowledge beyond the courts?

Was it the beads?

Can't be racism, huh?

"It bothers you when people are severely critical," said Richard, who walks Wimbledon grounds with cigarillo in full puff. "Especially when you're doing the best you can. I'm talking mostly about a couple of years ago. I always had black people, my people, who were so high on what we were doing."

He recalls bleacher talk when Venus first appeared in California junior tournaments. "I overheard people saying she was black and poor and shouldn't be on the court," Richard said. "It was tough on me, my wife and our girls. I came from the worst ghetto in the world and was simply trying to prove you don't have to come from mainline tennis roots."

Venus Ebone Starr Williams is learning to speak French, Russian, Italian and German. She enjoys watching sumo wrestling. She is studying fashion design at a small school near the family's Florida home base at Palm Beach Gardens.

Interesting young woman.

All from Daddy's plan?

"His influences are obvious," said the 6-foot-1 Venus. "Got a weird hold on me and Serena, for sure, but it's nothing at all bad. As we get older, there is rising independence. If he said to retire or stop with the languages or whatever, no way l'd do it unless I really wanted to."

In prize money alone, Richard's kids have earned $9-million. Endorsements probably double that. Serena and Venus are building their own $600,000 house in the neighborhood with the parents and three other sisters.

In their early teens, Richard kept them out of many traditional junior tournaments. He refused to enroll them in a tennis academy or link with some famous coach.

Daddy did it his way. Who knows if Serena and Venus would have been more dominant with more traditional tennis schooling? But there is a real chance they could be worse off. Lots of family histories to back up such a thought.

Serena and Venus are alike in many ways, but different in more than a few. In looks, body shape and even sense of humor. Venus is lean; angular; more serious. Serena is more outgoing, humorous and could wrestle with a weight problem. Says she's allergic "to peanuts and crazy people."

After the Serena conquest at the U.S. Open, there was a rumor about Venus retiring while still in her teens. Supposedly steamed at being one-upped by kid sister. "That was bogus," she said Saturday. "I read about it on the Internet.

"I can't see myself being in tennis until age 30. I've got many other things to accomplish. Lots of stuff to learn. Money isn't something I think about. I know we've made plenty.

"Right now, I couldn't buy an ice cream cone. I've not even exchanged dollars for British pounds. I keep leeching off Serena and Dad. We're quite a bunch. Our life is a saga. I wish people could know us better.

"Then again, maybe not."

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