EXCERPT: 'On The Line'

Now, tell me: what's wrong with that? Coming upon some rewarding new path your kids might follow and pointing them in the right direction? Doesn't seem to me there's anything to criticize here, but people are certainly quick to criticize, don't you think? In any case, I'm sure the story of how my family came to tennis has been embellished over the years, but at its core that's just what happened. And there's been some resentment layered onto it as well, because for whatever reason there's this notion that if you didn't grow up around the game, if it wasn't in your blood to begin with, you had no real claim on it. Tennis is like that, I'm afraid. There's a sense of entitlement, of belonging. Like you have to be born to it. Like you have to play it at a high level, before you can teach it. For the longest time, it was that sense of entitlement that probably kept a whole group of potentially talented minority and underprivileged kids from taking up the game. It must have felt to them like a sport of advantage—and I guess it was. Indeed, I've always believed that sense of entitlement is reinforced by the language of the game: advantage me!

No, the doors to the game weren't really closed on anyone, but they were essentially closed. If your parents didn't play, there was no reason for you to play. If no one in your community played, you'd never think to reach for a racquet in the first place. If you couldn't afford to be a member of some fancy country club, it might never occur to you to pick up a tennis racquet and teach yourself the game on some public court. But my dad saw tennis as a way to open doors for his daughters, probably thinking that the more doors that were open to us the better, so he ordered some instructional books and videos and taught himself the game. His idea was to kind of make it up as he went along. He'd do his homework, borrow what he liked from this or that coach, and find his own way to pass it on to his daughters.

My mother was pregnant with Venus at the time, and she was out on the court with my dad, working on her forehand and learning drills, technique, strategy. They were both good athletes, so the tennis came easy. They were both strong, physical, coordinated. They took to it right away. Before long, they felt like they could hit well enough to demonstrate proper technique and game strategy. The idea, my dad took to saying, was to teach his girls to be champions, just like the professional players he saw on television—like Virginia Ruzici!—but that really came later. That was part of the lore that attached to my family after we started to have some success. The mental toughness, the single-minded focus, the positive affirmations, the mind of a champion . . . all that came later, too, after we took to the sport and started to show some talent for it.

Absolutely, Daddy believed tennis was our ticket up and out of Compton, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Los Angeles where we lived, but he also knew we had to take to it. He knew it wasn't enough to simply teach us the game and train us to be champions. If that was all it took, then everyone would be doing it. We had to have some God-given talent and athletic ability. We had to develop a passion for the game and an iron will to succeed, and all these things would take time presenting themselves. Or not. And so at first tennis was just something to do, a way for us to be together as a family.

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