New York Tennis Magazine's Literary Corner: On the Line by Serena Williams

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I think many of us in the tennis world, understandably, take the Williams Sisters and their accomplishments for granted. But just because they have been mainstays on the women’s tour for more than 10 years, it is instructive to take another look because Venus and Serena are quite a story.

One way to review their accomplishments with fresh eyes is by reading On the Line, Serena’s memoir written with Daniel Paisner. The book covers Serena’s career up through the 2008 U.S. Open, so you won’t find any reaction to Serena’s verbal attack on the lineswoman that was a big story on the women’s side of the 2010 U.S. Open. That’s just as well since everyone has, I think, absorbed that incident and has adjusted their opinion of Serena as a result.

For all of the ink that has been spilled about Serena’s default, I think one unremarked-upon aspect of Serena’s meltdown is the way that courtside reporter Mary Joe Fernandez froze and was too terrified of an enraged Serena to interview her as she stormed off the court against Kim Clijsters following her default. Fernandez was Fed Cup Captain at the time and was afraid to confront her own potential team member. But even Patrick McEnroe gave a lot of thought to how to broach the subject of the default later that weekend after Serena and Venus won the doubles title. You have to love the conflicts of interest in our game.

On the Line does devote a chapter to an earlier controversy in the Williams’ career. Playing at Indian Wells in 2001, Venus defaulted due to an injury in the semis, allowing Serena to advance to the final against Kim Clijsters. It’s funny how Clijsters is always there when the Williams Sisters run into controversy.

The crowd of 14,000 booed Serena on the court and Richard and Venus in the stands. Since then, the Williams have boycotted the event. No doubt it was an ugly scene and I’d support the Williams’ family decision to boycott, although in On the Line, Serena gives in to the temptation to cast the boycott as a moral crusade.

But what makes On the Line a compelling read for the tennis fan is its portrait of the early years of the Williams Sisters. Serena talks about how, for years, all of the attention from the outside world of coaches, potential sponsors and the press was totally focused on Venus. Within the family, everyone agreed that Serena’s time would come, but rarely has birth order played such a role as it did for Serena as she waited for some of the spotlight to move from her big sister to her.

Even a casual tennis fan will be intrigued by Serena’s story of the girls’ upbringing and the way that their father created two champions out of his five daughters.

One way to look at the Williams Sisters’ story is that their father is the most successful junior development coach the world has ever seen. Two out of five kids make it to number one … not bad.

I’ve always thought the explanation for the way the Williams Sisters can drop in and out of the WTA Tour and be successful is that they just serve better than any of their competitors. You can also say that they are better athletes, but while I think that is true, you see the strength of their serves frequently bailing them out when they come back from an injury or have been off the tour for other reasons.

So, here’s a note to teaching pros, parents and players. One thing Richard Williams did with Serena and Venus to improve their serves was to have them throw American footballs back and forth across the net. Serena relates how the girls started tossing the ball from a few feet away from the net, then moved to the service line, and eventually to the baseline.

The next time you watch that bag check feature on the Tennis Channel, don’t be surprised if more women players are packing footballs with their jump-ropes and other gear. Because the Richard Williams football drill and, no doubt, many other serving drills, created the two best hitters of the game’s most important shot in women’s tennis history.

Richard Williams made Serena and Venus the pros they have become. He may get credit for having a master plan now, but as Serena writes in On the Line of one of his famous decisions, to not let his girls play junior tennis, he was making it up as he went along.

Serena quotes her dad explaining this decision by saying, “Meeka, I don’t see why you and your sister should travel all over just to beat up on these other little girls.”

With the Williams, family and their Jehovah’s Witness religion was the foundation for everything they accomplished. What comes across in On the Line is the sweetness Richard Williams nurtured in his family for tennis. I don’t think most players, with Andre Agassi as an exception perhaps, become champions without coming to love the sounds and rhythms of the game. Richard instilled this in his girls, even the three who didn’t become champs and the result has forever changed the history of tennis.