My sisters looked on and cheered and chased the balls I missed or hit to the next court. They'd been down this way before, taking their own first hits—Venus, just a year or so before. I'd been around the court long enough to know what I was supposed to do. It was just my turn, is all. At last. Wasn't any kind of ceremony to it. Wasn't really any kind of big deal, except when I look back and see how far I've come—how far we've all come, really. My sister Isha even remembers what I was wearing: a white tennis skirt, with gathers in the middle, decorated with pink, gray, and purple flowers; my hair braided in cornrows and bunched in a ponytail at the top of my head. Even then, I was styling. We didn't have money for proper tennis clothes, but I wanted to look good.
I was tiny. People have a hard time believing this, considering how tall I am now. Venus was always tall for her age, but I was way on the small side. That regulation racquet was probably bigger than I was, but we couldn't afford a junior racquet. Over the years, I've wondered if that might have put some kind of stamp on the way I played, taking my very first swings with a racquet that was too big for me. Maybe that was the first instance of my dad setting things up so that success was something I had to reach for. It might be there for the taking, but I would have to rise to meet it.
My parents taught themselves the game so they could teach it to us. It's one of the first things people mention when they talk about my career or Venus's—and yet for some reason it's not always seen as a positive. I don't get that, because there's nothing wrong with learning about something and passing it on to your children. Yes, it was a calculated move. At some point my dad was watching a match on television, and he couldn't believe how much money these women were making, just for hitting a tennis ball. He's told the story so often it's been burned into me. He was watching a match being played by Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open champion. The announcer mentioned that Ruzici had just earned $40,000 during one week of tournament play—more than my dad had earned all year. It didn't fi t with how hard he worked for a living, how hard my mom worked, how hard it was for everyone they knew to get and keep ahead. And so the story goes that my dad went out the next morning to pick up a newspaper to confirm Ruzici's earnings, to see for himself if tennis players could actually make so much money in such a short stretch of time. When it turned out to be true, he came home and said to my mother, "We need to make two more kids and make them into tennis superstars."
At least that's the line he used to tell reporters after Venus and I started playing on the tour. It became a real fish-out-of-water story and a symbol of what people can do with a little vision and determination, when they reach beyond what they know for something new.