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Tragedy and unwavering love: The forgotten story behind the Williams sisters.

Where to begin with what made tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, well, Venus and Serena Williams?

Who were they before they dominated the women’s tennis circuit? How is Venus having a comeback at 36? And whose box is their mother going to sit in when they go head-to-head in the Australian Open final this Saturday?

Serena, 35, is the little sister who said I can do anything you can do – and better. She has won the second most Grand Slam singles titles in history (equal with Steffi Graf) with 22 in her trophy cabinet and Venus has won seven Grand Slam single titles.

A photo posted by Venus Williams (@venuswilliams) on

Their tennis career began before they could even hold a racquet. Their father, Richard Williams a former sharecropper from Louisiana, watched a tennis match on TV and thought the winner received a big cheque for “four days work”.

He then wrote a 78-page manifesto outlining how he would make his two youngest daughters tennis stars.

By three and four-and-a-half he was hitting balls with them on the local public tennis court in Compton, Los Angeles (yes, the same Compton in the movie Straight Outta Compton) a tough neighbourhood overrun by gangs. In this environment Richard thought his daughters would learn how to be tough in return and how to fight for what you want in life. He also wanted the sisters to see first-hand what life would be like “if they did not work hard and get an education”.

The public courts they trained on were potholed, sometimes missing nets and littered with drug paraphernalia. Often they had people yelling at them as they practiced. An old supermarket cart was chained to the net post to store the tennis balls they would bring for practice. If they didn’t chain the cart it would probably be stolen.

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Both Richard and his then wife, Oracene, would coach the girls.

According to Rick Macci, their first “proper” coach, Richard would drive around in an old beat-up Volkswagon van “littered with McDonald wrappers, clothes and springs coming out of the seats”. When Macci saw the girls do drills for the first time, aged about nine and 10, he didn’t rate them. Then he asked the sisters to play a game.

They improved dramatically.

“Venus and Serena had a deep down burning desire to fight and compete at this age. It was unique. Unreal hunger,” Macci wrote in his book, Macci Magic: Extracting Greatness From Yourself And Others.

The whole family soon moved to Florida to train under Macci but, controversially, Richard decreased his daughters’ tennis commitments. He said he wanted to ensure they also did their schoolwork and that he had heard other parents (the tennis academy they went to was predominantly white) say racist things about his children. In fact, Richard pulled his daughters out of the Macci Tennis Academy about four years later when they had just become teenagers citing racism, and the Williams sisters went back to being coached by their mother and father.

Venus and Serena both turned professional at 14. They won games, they lost a few. They always made an impact. They dominated the tennis scene in the the early 2000s with Serena being ranked the world’s number one female tennis player for 309 weeks and Venus for 11 weeks.

Richard’s gamble on putting everything he had on making tennis stars out of his daughters paid off. According to Forbes, Serena’s estimated net worth is said to be around $150 million with Venus’s net worth estimated to be around $74 million.

But the gamble didn’t help his marriage. Just over ten years after they made the move to Florida, Richard and Oracene Williams (now Oracene Price – she reverted to her maiden name) divorced in 2002 after a two year separation. There were allegations of domestic abuse which Richard Williams denied.

In 2003, their half-sister, Yetunda Price, who was working as their personal assistant was shot and killed in Compton where she still lived. The sisters were devastated.

Their father went on to marry a woman one year older than Venus and they had a son in 2012.

Despite the divorce, the Williams remained tight with Richard and Oracene working together for their daughters’ careers. Whatever has been said about the Williams sisters on court, it is clear they are not rivals off it. Venus and Serena lived with each other in Florida until they built their own homes, in the same street, in 2014/2015.

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“I am finally moving away from my sister after 34 or 35 years by the time it’s done,” Serena said in 2014.

“It’s a good time. I figure that will be my new life … I’m kind of scared, but I’m growing up.”

In 2011 Venus was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease causing fatigue and joint pain. She has been battling it every day. Both have suffered injuries including shoulder, wrist and knee issues.

The sisters have faced each other before at an Australian Open final. They were 22 and 23, at the peak of their careers and Serena won that time.

Now, here they are again. At 35 and 36 about to go head-to-head for the 28th time in a professional game. In terms of Grand Slams, Serena leads her big sister 6-2. Fun fact number two: it also makes the match the oldest women’s Grand Slam final in the Open era.

“This is probably the moment of our careers so far,” Serena told CNN this week. “For me, I can definitely say for me. I never lost hope for us being able to play each other in a (grand slam) final although it was hard because we’re usually on the same side of the draw.”
“She’s my toughest opponent. No one’s ever beaten me as much as Venus has. I just feel like no matter what happens, we’ve won.
“I was there for the whole time. We lived together. I know what she went through. She’s been through a lot. I’ve been through a lot.”

And what about their mum, Oracene? Which box will she sit in for the Australian Open Grand Final?

Oracene is usually a regular at the Grand Slams, but reports say she won’t be there on Saturday.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe Oracene is just fine watching her daughters battle it out on TV in the privacy of her own lounge room.

We’re sure she doesn’t have a favourite anyway.

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