On the Line
Ride a Little, Bump a Little
My first tennis memory? People always ask about it, but I'm afraid I don't have one. I just remember playing, all the time. It's like tennis was always there, like going to services at Kingdom Hall. Like breathing.
I saw a picture once of Venus pushing me in a stroller on a tennis court, but I don't actually remember this moment. I've seen pictures of me holding a racquet taken around the time I started to walk. I don't remember those moments, either. I've heard all the stories, of course. The ones that have somehow passed into urban tennis legend, and the ones that still get kicked around in my family. Some of them are even true.
Best anyone can recall: I was three years old. It was a Saturday afternoon, maybe Sunday. My parents took us out to the public courts at a park in Lynwood, California, not far from where we lived. It was a total family affair. There was me, my older sister Venus, and my mom and dad, together with our older sisters Lyndrea, Isha, and Yetunde. The older girls had been playing for a time, while I had been trudging along, but then one day my dad announced that I was ready to take my swings, too. He put a standard, regulation-size racquet in my hand and positioned me a couple feet from the net. Then he climbed to the other side and started soft-tossing until I managed to hit a couple over.
"Just look at the ball, Serena," he kept saying, in that patient tone and sweet Louisiana drawl I'd come to hear in my dreams. "Just swing."
Years later, he took to calling me Meeka—a variation on my middle name, Jameka. Tunde pinned that nickname on me when I was about six and it stuck, and I used to love to hear it from my father. He still calls me Meeka, and whenever he does it puts me in mind of how things were between us when I was little, when I was first learning to really play. Say what you will about my dad (and folks have said an awful lot over the years), he had a gentle demeanor when he wanted to, especially when we were just starting out. He made a game out of it, encouraging me to swing as hard as I could. Didn't matter to him where I hit the ball, or how I hit it, just that I hit it.
After every toss, he'd offer a word of encouragement, a point of praise:
"Good job, Serena."
"Way to go."
My sisters looked on and cheered and chased the balls I missed or hit to the next court. They'd been down this way before, taking their own first hits—Venus, just a year or so before. I'd been around the court long enough to know what I was supposed to do. It was just my turn, is all. At last. Wasn't any kind of ceremony to it. Wasn't really any kind of big deal, except when I look back and see how far I've come—how far we've all come, really. My sister Isha even remembers what I was wearing: a white tennis skirt, with gathers in the middle, decorated with pink, gray, and purple flowers; my hair braided in cornrows and bunched in a ponytail at the top of my head. Even then, I was styling. We didn't have money for proper tennis clothes, but I wanted to look good.
I was tiny. People have a hard time believing this, considering how tall I am now. Venus was always tall for her age, but I was way on the small side. That regulation racquet was probably bigger than I was, but we couldn't afford a junior racquet. Over the years, I've wondered if that might have put some kind of stamp on the way I played, taking my very first swings with a racquet that was too big for me. Maybe that was the first instance of my dad setting things up so that success was something I had to reach for. It might be there for the taking, but I would have to rise to meet it.
My parents taught themselves the game so they could teach it to us. It's one of the first things people mention when they talk about my career or Venus's—and yet for some reason it's not always seen as a positive. I don't get that, because there's nothing wrong with learning about something and passing it on to your children. Yes, it was a calculated move. At some point my dad was watching a match on television, and he couldn't believe how much money these women were making, just for hitting a tennis ball. He's told the story so often it's been burned into me. He was watching a match being played by Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open champion. The announcer mentioned that Ruzici had just earned $40,000 during one week of tournament play—more than my dad had earned all year. It didn't fit with how hard he worked for a living, how hard my mom worked, how hard it was for everyone they knew to get and keep ahead. And so the story goes that my dad went out the next morning to pick up a newspaper to confirm Ruzici's earnings, to see for himself if tennis players could actually make so much money in such a short stretch of time. When it turned out to be true, he came home and said to my mother, "We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars."
At least that's the line he used to tell reporters after Venus and I started playing on the tour. It became a real fish-out-of-water story and a symbol of what people can do with a little vision and determination, when they reach beyond what they know for something new.
Now, tell me: what's wrong with that? Coming upon some rewarding new path your kids might follow and pointing them in the right direction? Doesn't seem to me there's anything to criticize here, but people are certainly quick to criticize, don't you think? In any case, I'm sure the story of how my family came to tennis has been embellished over the years, but at its core that's just what happened. And there's been some resentment layered onto it as well, because for whatever reason there's this notion that if you didn't grow up around the game, if it wasn't in your blood to begin with, you had no real claim on it. Tennis is like that, I'm afraid. There's a sense of entitlement, of belonging. Like you have to be born to it. Like you have to play it at a high level, before you can teach it. For the longest time, it was that sense of entitlement that probably kept a whole group of potentially talented minority and underprivileged kids from taking up the game. It must have felt to them like a sport of advantage—and I guess it was. Indeed, I've always believed that sense of entitlement is reinforced by the language of the game: advantage me!
No, the doors to the game weren't really closed on anyone, but they were essentially closed. If your parents didn't play, there was no reason for you to play. If no one in your community played, you'd never think to reach for a racquet in the first place. If you couldn't afford to be a member of some fancy country club, it might never occur to you to pick up a tennis racquet and teach yourself the game on some public court. But my dad saw tennis as a way to open doors for his daughters, probably thinking that the more doors that were open to us the better, so he ordered some instructional books and videos and taught himself the game. His idea was to kind of make it up as he went along. He'd do his homework, borrow what he liked from this or that coach, and find his own way to pass it on to his daughters.
My mother was pregnant with Venus at the time, and she was out on the court with my dad, working on her forehand and learning drills, technique, strategy. They were both good athletes, so the tennis came easy. They were both strong, physical, coordinated. They took to it right away. Before long, they felt like they could hit well enough to demonstrate proper technique and game strategy. The idea, my dad took to saying, was to teach his girls to be champions, just like the professional players he saw on television—like Virginia Ruzici!—but that really came later. That was part of the lore that attached to my family after we started to have some success. The mental toughness, the single-minded focus, the positive affirmations, the mind of a champion… all that came later, too, after we took to the sport and started to show some talent for it.
Absolutely, Daddy believed tennis was our ticket up and out of Compton, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Los Angeles where we lived, but he also knew we had to take to it. He knew it wasn't enough to simply teach us the game and train us to be champions. If that was all it took, then everyone would be doing it. We had to have some God-given talent and athletic ability. We had to develop a passion for the game and an iron will to succeed, and all these things would take time presenting themselves. Or not. And so at first tennis was just something to do, a way for us to be together as a family.
Don't get me wrong: tennis became a real focus for us. Very quickly. It became Daddy's focus, certainly. And what a lot of people don't realize is my mom was with him every step of the way. This was her deal, too. It wasn't just that she supported my dad's vision. She saw what he saw; she wanted what he wanted; she worked for it just as much as he did. She had her own ideas on how we should train—and even now, she's one of the best at helping to break down my game and figure out what's working and what's not. When I was little, I actually spent more time hitting with my mom than I did with my dad. Venus was usually on the next court with my dad. And then, when it was time for my older sisters to hit, Venus and I would start picking up balls for them.
We all played, all the time. It was our thing. It got to where people would know we'd be out there on those courts every day after school. There were just two courts at the park in Compton, so the few recreational players there would know to get their games in during the day, because when three o'clock rolled around Richard Williams would be pulling up in his Volkswagen minibus, dirty yellow with a white top, with his five girls spilling out onto those courts like they had their names on them. There were a few more courts at the park in Lynwood—maybe six—but we always used the two at the back, and the people there knew we'd be coming, too. It's not like there were too many people playing tennis on those public courts back then. If it happened that the courts were occupied when we arrived, we waited our turn. We'd do some drills, or some stretching off to the side, maybe work on our swings. My dad never minded the wait. His thing was: no problem, we'll fill the time.
The courts themselves were in sorry shape. There was broken glass every here and there. Cracks in the cement. Weeds poking through. Soda cans, beer bottles, fast-food wrappers… I've read articles that say there was drug paraphernalia littering those courts and that we girls had to sweep the syringes and tubes and plastic bags out of the way before we could play, but I don't remember any of that. When I ask my dad about this, he says, "Why you want to dwell on the negative, Meeka?" In other articles it says we could hear gunshots ringing out while we were playing, from all the drive-by shootings. That I remember full well, only the shots themselves didn't sound all that terrifying until I learned what they were. At first, I just thought someone was setting off firecrackers or popping some balloons, but once I learned what the sound meant it would shake me up pretty good. "Never mind the noise, Meeka," Daddy used to say whenever gunfire rang out. "Just play."
Wasn't exactly Center Court at Roland Garros, but it was all we knew.
We bounced around a lot, from public court to public court. There was one place we used to play that had these great chain-link nets. You'd drill a ball into the net, and you'd rattle the cage and feel like you really accomplished something—even though we were supposed to hit it over the net, of course. My dad tried to mix it up for us, but for the most part those courts in Lynwood and Compton were our home base. We branched out, though—and if we didn't like a certain park, or a certain neighborhood, we wouldn't go back.
Once, at Lynwood Park, a group of kids started giving us a hard time. I was probably five or six. Venus and I were hitting. My sisters were chasing balls. I don't remember what my parents were doing, but they must have been there, somewhere. These kids kept taunting us. They called us Blackie One and Blackie Two. It was so cruel, so arbitrary, but we kept playing. Finally, Tunde stopped chasing balls and chased these kids instead. She was the oldest, so she felt a responsibility to look after us. She had our backs. I don't know what she said to these kids when she caught up to them, but they didn't bother us anymore after that.
As kids, I don't think we heard those taunts as racist remarks. They were just taunts. Those kids were just being mean. If Venus and I had been more typical California golden girls, these kids might have called us Blondie One and Blondie Two. We were just different; that's how I took it at the time. We stood out. Might have been something more to it than that, but I was too young to recognize it. But maybe Tunde heard these remarks a little differently, and that's why she chased these boys down.
However it happened, and whatever it meant, I looked on and thought, Someday, Serena, you won't need your sisters to fight your battles for you.
Over time, Daddy collected all this equipment—ball hoppers, carts, cones, whatever he could find to make our sessions more like the ones in his books and videos. He really tried to create a professional environment for us on a nothing budget. For a while, the routine was we had to take out the middle seat in our van so my dad could fit the shopping cart he'd somehow managed to acquire, which he would fill with tennis balls and wheel out to the court. We must have made an odd picture, crammed into the van like that with a shopping cart. I'd sit up front with Venus, sharing a seat belt. The big girls sat in back. The cart would be jammed in the middle, alongside a couple brooms so we could sweep the court. It always felt to me like we were rumbling along in that van from Scooby Doo, our equipment jammed in so tight we'd have to stick our arms and legs out the windows to make room.
My mom would usually meet us at the courts after work. Eventually, it got a little tiresome lugging that cart back and forth each day with all the rest of our gear, so my father started locking the cart to the rusty fence surrounding the court. Saved us a lot of time and trouble. This was another example of my parents' approach: when something worked, they stayed with it; when it no longer made sense, they tried something else. We still took the balls home with us every night, in buckets and boxes and milk crates and whatever else we could find to carry them, but now it was much more efficient; now they took up a lot less room.
Man, those balls were precious to us. They were like money in the bank. I don't recall that we ever retired a ball from our collection. Daddy would take the oldest, baldest, flattest balls and turn them into a drill. He'd keep them in the mix with all the other balls, but when he pitched one of these special balls to us he said it would help us with our speed, our footwork, our concentration. I hated going after those balls—they just wouldn't bounce!—but Daddy kept them in play.
"At Wimbledon," he'd say, "the balls will bounce low, just like these special balls, so you have to be ready."
Occasionally, we'd hit a ball into the woods or out onto the street beyond the fence, and we'd have to go looking for it before giving it up for lost. I hit more balls over the fence than my sisters—not by accident, necessarily, but by design. See, I discovered that when Daddy sent me across the street to collect the ball after one of my errant shots, it meant a break from the hard work he had us doing on the court, so I learned to play the angles at an early age.
Also occasionally, Daddy would add a new can or two to our collection, and that was always a real treat. Those fresh balls really popped. You could follow them all afternoon, up against the faded yellow of all those tired old tennis balls. It always felt like I had to bear down a little harder whenever a fresh ball reached the top of the pile and was put in play; there was a little more hop to it; it bounced off my racquet with a little more purpose and authority. Plus, it sounded great—the music of the game. I never liked to waste one of those new balls with a bad shot. It was like a missed opportunity. New balls are like that. To this day, whenever I smell a can of just-opened balls it puts me in mind of those new cans my dad used to bring out, when those brand-new balls made me feel like a real tennis player. They were so clean, so yellow, the felt so fine like the hairs on the back of your head… it was almost a shame to get them dirty.
Of course, they all got dirty, eventually. Soon, they'd lose that fresh bounce and they'd get all dirty and there'd be no telling the new balls from the ones at the bottom of the pile—but that didn't mean we stopped playing. No, sir. It only meant we'd have to get all these other balls to pop with the same purpose and authority, until my father could get us a couple new cans.
That was the way of things for the first while. We developed our own little routine, our own little family dynamic, built around this funny little game. We were little girls smacking a ball around inside a box, that's what Daddy used to say. And, at first, that's all it was. But then we started showing flashes that we could really play, when I was about five or six and Venus about six or seven, so my parents changed things up on us. They went at it harder. They pushed us harder. That might have been their plan all along, but they didn't go harder until we showed them we were ready. And when we were, we went from playing just a couple hours a day four or five times a week, to three or four hours a day every day of the week. Some days, we'd even be out for two-a-day sessions, starting up at six o'clock in the morning before school, and then again after school, usually until dark. In the morning, we'd sometimes get to the court before the sun was all the way up, and Daddy would have us stretch or practice our swings until we could see well enough to hit.
I still do that, by the way—head out to practice at first light. It's my favorite time to hit, because everything's so quiet; you've got the whole day in front of you. I hate getting up early—really!!!—but I push myself. You can put in a full day's work before your opponent even gets out of bed, and that can give you an incredible psychological edge to carry into your next match, knowing you're fully prepared, knowing the other girl is sleeping in while you're out there sweating. And in those moments when I'm waiting for the sun to finish rising I'll think back to those early mornings on those public courts in Compton and Lynwood, keeping busy until my dad gave us the nod to start playing.
It got to be a grueling schedule, but none of us really minded it. Or we hardly noticed. We were all together. It was what we did, that's all. We didn't know any different. We didn't have a whole lot of friends outside of school. There was only time for each other, for tennis. My dad tried to make it fun for us. Every session had a theme, a structure. He'd set up all these creative games, with cones placed around the court, and there'd be a series of challenges we'd have to meet. Sometimes he'd put up little messages or sayings on the fence around the court to help motivate us, or maybe just to make us smile.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
You are a winner.
Say "Thank you."
(This last saying was one of his favorites.)
He'd write out these empowering messages on big pieces of paper or oak tag, or sometimes he'd have us write them out. Then he'd hang them up all around the court. If there was a theme to one of his sessions—like "Focus"—all the messages would have to do with the theme. He really put a lot of time and effort into this part of our training, because he believed it was important. He wanted these messages to resonate, for the visual image of the word to linger in our minds long after we'd left the court. Years later, when we moved to Florida, he had some signs made professionally, with his most effective messages—and those he put up permanently.
Basically, he was fooling us into thinking we weren't working, with all those games and messages, but after a while we caught on. We didn't care, though. We didn't mind working hard. I mean, we were kids, so of course we grumbled from time to time. Of course we did our little celebration dance whenever it rained, because that meant we wouldn't have to practice. Of course I hit a ball or two over the fence to buy myself a break while I went to retrieve it. But it wasn't so bad. Every now and then, my dad would reward us with some time to play in the nearby playground, or in the sandbox. That was another great treat for us girls. I used to love doing cartwheels. Whenever I had a five-minute break, I'd be in the grass alongside the court, flipping around. I spent a lot of time on the monkey bars, too, as I recall.
Even when we weren't playing tennis, our games were tennis-related. One of our very favorite family games was UNO, which I always thought was fitting for us. We played that game all the time—and I mean all