Serena Williams often says there would be no her without Venus. So if this was indeed their last tournament together, it is fitting that they went out in the doubles on Thursday night in the same manner as they arrived more than two decades ago: as a team – The Williams sisters.
After they retire officially, you’ll find them on the pages of sports, business, health, fitness and fashion magazines. The Williams sisters transcend sports. They’ve obliterated records, broken barriers and precedents to the point that little is left for proteges like Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka. The chance to become the first black woman to win a career grand slam? Gone. The first black woman to win Olympic golds in singles and doubles? Gone. The first black women to win grand slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles? Gone. The first black women ranked No 1? Gone.
What’s left is a sports legacy unequalled in its impact and cultural significance. The Williams sisters changed how the game is played and who is playing the game. Forty-one years passed between Althea Gibson winning her last grand slam title and Serena winning her first. Today, four black women playing at this year’s US Open have a combined 35 grand slam singles titles.
Venus has five Olympic medals (one silver, four gold), the most won by any tennis player, male or female, in the Open era. Serena ranks second, with four gold medals. They are a perfect 14-0 in grand slam doubles finals. Black women – Serena (23), Venus (seven) and Osaka (four) – hold the top three spots on the list of most major titles among active female players. There were more black women in the main draw at the 2022 US Open than there were African Americans in last year’s World Series.
Venus and Serena have reshaped the tennis landscape to such an extent that it’s easy to forget what it looked like before they arrived. Women’s tennis matches were rarely played in US primetime before Venus and Serena. Billie Jean King fought hard for equal prize money at the majors. But that didn’t happen at all four grand slam events, until Venus and Serena started drawing mega television ratings.
Indeed, Venus and Serena may be the greatest sports story ever told. Who could write something so improbable? Their father, Richard Williams.
Before Venus and Serena were born, Richard developed a 75-page business plan for ‘The Richard Williams Tennis Association’’, a blueprint for raising champions. He acted as architect and promoter of the Williams sisters and used the “straight out of Compton” story to hype his girls.
Like any good promoter, Richard leveraged a narrative the media bought and sold: poor black girls making it in a lily-white world. The reality was a little different. Things certainly weren’t easy for the Williams family. But their mother, Oracene Price, had a steady income as a nurse, and Richard, a serial entrepreneur, claims he made $52,000 a year in the early 1980s. Even in southern California, a dual-income household bringing in $52,000 to $80,000 a year in that era was far from impoverished.
Yet braided and beaded sisters from “the hood” made a more compelling story. King Richard seized the narrative and promoted his racket-wielding princesses as “Ghetto Cinderellas”. Like a production company rolling out a potential blockbuster, Richard gave sports journalists and fans a preview of the upcoming entertainment. He teased greatness in interviews while keeping his daughters off the junior circuit, concealing their games like a plotline for a Marvel movie. As anticipation grew, Richard promised that the Williams sisters would be coming soon to a tournament near you. He had his act. All he needed was for Venus and Serena to put on a show.
They did not disappoint.
Early in their careers, they were as packaged a sibling sensation as the Bee Gees. They appeared on the cover of magazines, together. On Oprah, together. In “Got Milk” ads, together. In major finals, together. At the top of the WTA rankings, together.
They also endured racism and heartbreak together.
When Venus withdrew from the Indian Wells tournament in 2001, fans took their frustrations out on Serena, booing her winners and applauding unforced errors.
This disproportionate disdain for Serena and Venus is matched only by the revisionist reverence bestowed on them today. This week’s Williams worship is reminiscent of how baseball fans celebrated another black sports star, Hank Aaron, in his retirement. While chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record, Aaron received death threats for simply rounding bases in white spaces.
Richard and Oracene prepared Venus and Serena for the disingenuous admiration, imploring them not to measure their success or failure by what people gave them. Their parents taught the sisters to tap into their competitive spirit while rejecting a natural inclination to compete against each other. Instead, togetherness had to survive celebrity, fame and fortune.
“Their mother is their ultimate role model in terms of focus. She taught them to stay focused and she never allowed them to let anything get in the way of their relationship,” Cora Masters Barry, a close friend of Oracene, once told me. “One of the many times when they ended up playing each other in a final, as soon as the match was over, before I could even look up, Oracene was running back to the locker room to make sure that everybody was OK, but also to make sure that the sister bond survived.”
In the early 2010s, Serena’s superlative play – and a few outside factors – meant the Williams sisters as a unit were no longer the hottest ticket on the women’s tour. In 2011, Venus was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells. The illness left Venus weak and tired.
“I know that her career might have been different if she had had my health,” Serena once told Vogue.
In 2012, Serena brought on Patrick Mouratoglou, who would help her to new heights, as a coach. He first appeared in Serena’s player’s box at Wimbledon that year. That was also Richard’s last appearance in the player’s box of either of his daughters in a grand slam final. In 2013, Serena went 78-4, cementing her status as a single entity atop women’s tennis.
Venus enjoyed a resurgence in 2015. First, she reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open. It was her first time in the last eight of a major since 2010. Then, she made the quarter-finals at the US Open, where she lost to her sister. But that year was all about Serena, who narrowly missed out on a calendar grand slam after losing in the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows.
The beginning of this tournament was all about Serena. Then the US Open announced another first that Venus and Serena could add to their seemingly endless accolades: the first-round doubles match was featured in primetime, on Ashe. It was a fitting honor for Venus and Serena, the Williams sisters, the greatest sibling act in sports history.