Keeping it positive, Williamses survive

Published : Oct 04, 2003 00:00 IST

SELENA ROBERTSNew York Times News Service

OUT of necessity, out of survival, Venus Williams has leaned on a selective memory that includes the music-box tune from an ice cream truck that used to sputter along the streets of Compton, California.

She could be anywhere — on a local tennis court, on a sunbaked sidewalk — and the pigtailed Venus's eyes would grow the size of lollipops because she knew what was around the corner: Dreamsicles and Eskimo Pies.

"Sure, you know, maybe living in Compton isn't like the most desired place, not in the top 100," Williams once said of a hometown she left at age 11. "But I had a great time. I still miss the ice cream trucks. They had the best ice cream trucks. Spent all my allowance on the ice cream trucks."

Over the years, when questioned about her past, Venus never recounts how the gang members roamed Compton, how addicts left discarded syringes in the park, how the streetlights were all but hitching posts for the liquored-up. Her father, Richard, has depicted this bleaker picture, but Venus doesn't go there publicly. Keep it upbeat; keep it private.

Out of necessity, out of survival, Serena Williams has leaned on a selective memory that includes a moment three years ago at Wimbledon when her forehand grip was applied to the door handle of her father's rental car.

With a roundabout ahead, and British driving rules as a challenge, with a steering wheel in unfamiliar territory, and a narrow village road to navigate, she was a passenger on some sort of Chevy Chase "Vacation" adventure for her dad.

"We were having a little trouble, but now we are able to get to the village without any accidents," Serena said as she retraced the escapade with a smile, adding that her father made it "a little farther each day."

Over the years, when asked about her life outside tennis, Serena has never rummaged through the stormy details of her parents' divorce or exposed any fears of the stalker who once shadowed her every move. Serena has never unearthed any anger toward fans who have booed her unmercifully at times, toward players who have whispered nonsensical conspiracy theories about her sister-to-sister matches or toward critics who have roughed up her father. Keep it light; keep it in.

This is Venus and Serena, the un-stars of a starry-eyed society. Refusing to indulge in the popular art of celebrity catharsis, always tethered to controversy but never the cause of it, they have chosen to reveal their lives in the kind of happy splices that make up home movies.

"They are constant in every situation," Keven J. Davis, the longtime Williams family lawyer and friend, said in a telephone interview. "What you see is what you get."

They don't peel layers for public sympathy — no matter how often they are prodded. "I haven't had a tough time in my life," Venus told a roomful of reporters at Wimbledon in 2002. "Sorry."

But does such resilience have a breaking point? A fortnight ago, the half sister of Venus and Serena, Yetunde Price, 31, was killed when she was shot as she sat in a sport utility vehicle on a street in Compton.

"They're devastated, absolutely devastated," the Williams sisters' agent, Carlos Fleming, said in a telephone interview on that Friday night. "This has to be the most difficult situation they've ever experienced."

In a tragedy that revealed more about the Williams family dynamic than the sisters ever have — few knowing Serena and Venus were full sisters who grew up with three beloved half sisters, few knowing their mother's first husband had died — there has been speculation about what happens next for the two best players in tennis.

After all, personal traumas trigger individual responses.

When Monica Seles was stabbed in the back by an obsessed fan of Steffi Graf's during a changeover in 1993, she disappeared for two years. Upon her return, Seles's trademark helium-filled giggle was gone, replaced by a more sombre tone.

When Jennifer Capriati spiraled in the mid-90's, trying to cope with the unraveling of her parents' marriage, the pressure on her to succeed as a teenager and the uncomfortable inspection fame brought on, she dropped off the scene for more than a year. Upon her return, it took a while, but she finally gained a secure sense of herself three years ago.

How will the Williams sisters react now? Given that their father has often predicted an early retirement for his daughters — though Venus and Serena have never talked in the short term — some tennis officials privately wonder if they'll walk away from the sport. One European newspaper went so far as to report the speculation as a fact via an unnamed friend of the family.

"That's absolutely not true," Fleming said. "They're definitely coming back."

No doubt, they'll receive a kind embrace when they return, though Venus and Serena would never ask for anyone's sympathy. That's not like them. If they hold true to form, they will return in an uplifted mood, one built on cherished thoughts of Yetunde.

"That's what will carry them through," Davis said. "I think they will try to live the spirit of their sister. She was a voice of encouragement, and that voice will be inside of them forever."

Keep it positive; keep it together. Sometimes, selective memory is the only way.

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