EXCERPT: 'On The Line'

We went to tournaments from time to time. I remember watching Gabriella Sabatini, and thinking she was so tall and so beautiful, but at the same time thinking, Man, I can beat that girl. That's where my head was at as a kid. My parents had me thinking I was invincible. Gabriella wasn't built like the other girls on the tour; she was big and powerful, almost majestic. I kept staring at her and wondering if I would ever be that tall, that graceful, that powerful.

Another time, about a year or so after that World Team Tennis event with Billie Jean King, we hit with Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil. Here I would have been about eight years old, and these two great players were pretty much it in terms of role models for African-American girls on the tennis court. They were doubles partners, so they had a real rapport. This time, it actually was a special opportunity my dad had arranged. It wasn't any kind of clinic. It was just us, and Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil. I don't know how Daddy pulled this off, but he did. There I was, still a tiny little thing, thinking I could take it to these two great players. I actually thought I could beat them—that's how confident Venus and I were in our games. But then we started hitting and I thought, There's just no way. Oh my God, Zina and Lori were so strong! So quick! We couldn't hang with them at all, of course, but that was cool. That was just the silent fuel I'd need to put in the tank to keep me going to the next level.

There was another great program my father found for us in L.A. around the same time: "Youth vs. Experience." The way it was set up was they paired an older player, usually someone with experience on the tour, with an up-and-coming kid. Some of the older players were good club players or local teaching pros, and some were former tour professionals. I'd never heard of the lady I played against, so it wasn't any kind of big deal, but Venus drew a woman named Dodo Cheney, who'd actually won the Australian Championship back in 1938. Dodo Cheney was probably in her seventies when she played Venus, and Venus took it to her. She really did. My old lady beat me pretty soundly, but Venus beat her.

I mention this because Venus was really the first to make a name for herself, and it was largely through outings like this one—and her usual strong showings in local tournaments. I still remember the very first article written about Venus. We all remember it, because it set in motion one of our favorite family adventures—or misadventures, I should say. The article was in a local newspaper, the Compton Gazette. Here again, I was about seven or eight. The article was about Venus, mostly, but it was also about all of us. How we trained together on the public courts around town. How our parents taught themselves the game. How the tennis world was expecting great things. And on and on.

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