Serena's mother has her theories about Paris

Oracene Price admits she was rooting against the Lakers last spring. They had already won three straight championships and "I didn't want to see them win again.''


Oracene Price admits she was rooting against the Lakers last spring. They had already won three straight championships and "I didn't want to see them win again.''

She understands that sports fans root for the underdog. But she maintains the circumstances were different, quite different, for her youngest daughter, Serena Williams, early this month in Paris.

"They wanted a blonde and a ponytail,'' Price said.

Fans whistled against Serena Williams in a semifinal match of the French Open. The family is not making an issue of it, would rather see it dropped, but when a columnist, who had not been in Paris, asked Price to go back over her feelings, she did not back off.

"We, as black people, live with this all the time,'' Price said. "It's all about control.''

There are many other possible explanations for why some people were so vociferously against Serena as she lost her semifinal match: Justine Henin-Hardenne, the winner, is a French-speaking Belgian; there were many Belgians in the crowd; Williams had made a modest complaint about a ruling; there were political tensions between France and the United States last spring; and Serena Williams had won four straight Grand Slam tournaments.

Both parents, now divorced and existing on parallel planes during this tournament, see the outburst in Paris, however, as mainly a manifestation of race. Richard Williams, strolling the lanes of Wimbledon and chatting with fans after Venus Williams' victory, was his usual strong self when asked about Paris.

"You didn't see them booing Evert or Graf,'' he said, referring to two past popular champions in France The two daughters have shrugged it off, publicly. Serena wept at the time, but she has insisted she doesn't think about it anymore. Venus, who looked positively regal in a white tennis dress with a sparkly tiara on her head, has praised Wimbledon fans as "classy'' for clapping for points won, rather than points lost.

When asked if she was sending a message with that statement, Venus gave one of her Mona Lisa smiles. Her mother did not hide her feelings. Since the divorce in the past year, Oracene Price has reclaimed her maiden name, but she never had to reclaim her own mind.

"I was disappointed,'' she said. "They didn't want to see another Williams in the finals.''

Price said she was reared without prejudice by parents who had moved from the Mississippi Delta to work in the Midwest. But she said the experiences of her life had taught her to be wary.

"You have to be 100 times better, just to get inside the door,'' she said.

Price was asked if the French might have been reacting to her daughter because of the disagreement over the American-led invasion of Iraq.

"I'm not an advocate of war under any circumstance,'' she said. "If that was a reaction to the war, that was totally unfair.''

The three Williams women have always travelled well in France, trying harder to pick up the language and the customs than many American athletes and other tourists do. But Price said she thought the French had been unhappy when the U.S. soccer team advanced to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan last year, after the French team had been knocked out after the first round.

College-educated and not a firebrand, Price listens to other sides. I told her I had been in France twice in recent weeks, and speak a little French, and love the country, and had detected only friendliness wherever I went. It is also my observation that the French, no matter what they may think of the American government's war in Iraq, have traditionally embraced American jazz, American styles, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Kennedy, California vacations — good grief, even Jerry Lewis. They might resist or resent Serena's skill and swagger and success, but would they resist and resent Serena as a black woman?

My own feeling, from afar, is that many forces were at play in this unpleasant outburst in Paris — and that race was probably way down the list.

Still, as a white American with friends and relatives of colour, I totally understand the feelings that Oracene Price, her two tennis-playing daughters and Richard Williams may have.

"Any person of colour learns, `We can't let you out of your place,''' Price said. Her two daughters, with their talent and their flair, are making their own place. Maybe they will enjoy it, without feeling the limitations of the past.

New York Times News Service