Serena Williams has won every major title in tennis. In her memoir, "On The Line," Williams describes how she worked her way up to become one of the top women's players worldwide.
For Williams, tennis practice first started in the tough neighborhood of Compton, Calif., where her father trained her on public tennis courts filled with broken glass. Over the years, she has had to overcome injury and cope with her sister's tragic shooting. Off the court, she has made her mark in philanthropy, fashion, television and film using her trademark determination.
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ON THE LINEChapter One
Ride a Little, Bump a Little
My first tennis memory? People always ask about it, but I'm afraid I don't have one. I just remember playing, all the time. It's like tennis was always there, like going to services at Kingdom Hall. Like breathing. I saw a picture once of Venus pushing me in a stroller on a tennis court, but I don't actually remember this moment. I've seen pictures of me holding a racquet taken around the time I started to walk. I don't remember those moments, either. I've heard all the stories, of course. The ones that have somehow passed into urban tennis legend, and the ones that still get kicked around in my family. Some of them are even true.
Best anyone can recall: I was three years old. It was a Saturday afternoon, maybe Sunday. My parents took us out to the public courts at a park in Lynwood, California, not far from where we lived. It was a total family affair. There was me, my older sister Venus, and my mom and dad, together with our older sisters Lyndrea, Isha, and Yetunde. The older girls had been playing for a time, while I had been trudging along, but then one day my dad announced that I was ready to take my swings, too. He put a standard, regulation-size racquet in my hand and positioned me a couple feet from the net. Then he climbed to the other side and started soft-tossing until I managed to hit a couple over.
"Just look at the ball, Serena," he kept saying, in that patient tone and sweet Louisiana drawl I'd come to hear in my dreams. "Just swing."
Years later, he took to calling me Meeka—a variation on my middle name, Jameka. Tunde pinned that nickname on me when I was about six and it stuck, and I used to love to hear it from my father. He still calls me Meeka, and whenever he does it puts me in mind of how things were between us when I was little, when I was first learning to really play. Say what you will about my dad (and folks have said an awful lot over the years), he had a gentle demeanor when he wanted to, especially when we were just starting out. He made a game out of it, encouraging me to swing as hard as I could. Didn't matter to him where I hit the ball, or how I hit it, just that I hit it.
After every toss, he'd offer a word of encouragement, a point of praise:
"Good job, Serena."
"Way to go."
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.
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.
Don't get me wrong: tennis became a real focus for us. Very quickly. It became Daddy's focus, certainly. And what a lot of people don't realize is my mom was with him every step of the way. This was her deal, too. It wasn't just that she supported my dad's vision. She saw what he saw; she wanted what he wanted; she worked for it just as much as he did. She had her own ideas on how we should train—and even now, she's one of the best at helping to break down my game and figure out what's working and what's not. When I was little, I actually spent more time hitting with my mom than I did with my dad. Venus was usually on the next court with my dad. And then, when it was time for my older sisters to hit, Venus and I would start picking up balls for them.
We all played, all the time. It was our thing. It got to where people would know we'd be out there on those courts every day after school. There were just two courts at the park in Compton, so the few recreational players there would know to get their games in during the day, because when three o'clock rolled around Richard Williams would be pulling up in his Volkswagen minibus, dirty yellow with a white top, with his five girls spilling out onto those courts like they had their names on them. There were a few more courts at the park in Lynwood—maybe six—but we always used the two at the back, and the people there knew we'd be coming, too. It's not like there were too many people playing tennis on those public courts back then. If it happened that the courts were occupied when we arrived, we waited our turn. We'd do some drills, or some stretching off to the side, maybe work on our swings. My dad never minded the wait. His thing was: no problem, we'll fill the time.
The courts themselves were in sorry shape. There was broken glass every here and there. Cracks in the cement. Weeds poking through. Soda cans, beer bottles, fast-food wrappers . . . I've read articles that say there was drug paraphernalia littering those courts and that we girls had to sweep the syringes and tubes and plastic bags out of the way before we could play, but I don't remember any of that. When I ask my dad about this, he says, "Why you want to dwell on the negative, Meeka?" In other articles it says we could hear gunshots ringing out while we were playing, from all the drive-by shootings. That I remember full well, only the shots themselves didn't sound all that terrifying until I learned what they were. At first, I just thought someone was setting off firecrackers or popping some balloons, but once I learned what the sound meant it would shake me up pretty good. "Never mind the noise, Meeka," Daddy used to say whenever gunfire rang out. "Just play."
Wasn't exactly Center Court at Roland Garros, but it was all we knew.
We bounced around a lot, from public court to public court. There was one place we used to play that had these great chain link nets. You'd drill a ball into the net, and you'd rattle the cage and feel like you really accomplished something—even though we were supposed to hit it over the net, of course. My dad tried to mix it up for us, but for the most part those courts in Lynwood and Compton were our home base. We branched out, though—and if we didn't like a certain park, or a certain neighborhood, we wouldn't go back.
Once, at Lynwood Park, a group of kids started giving us a hard time. I was probably five or six. Venus and I were hitting. My sisters were chasing balls. I don't remember what my parents were doing, but they must have been there, somewhere. These kids kept taunting us. They called us Blackie One and Blackie Two. It was so cruel, so arbitrary, but we kept playing. Finally, Tunde stopped chasing balls and chased these kids instead. She was the oldest, so she felt a responsibility to look after us. She had our backs. I don't know what she said to these kids when she caught up to them, but they didn't bother us anymore after that.
As kids, I don't think we heard those taunts as racist remarks. They were just taunts. Those kids were just being mean. If Venus and I had been more typical California golden girls, these kids might have called us Blondie One and Blondie Two. We were just different; that's how I took it at the time. We stood out. Might have been something more to it than that, but I was too young to recognize it. But maybe Tunde heard these remarks a little differently, and that's why she chased these boys down.
However it happened, and whatever it meant, I looked on and thought, Someday, Serena, you won't need your sisters to fight your battles for you.
Over time, Daddy collected all this equipment—ball hoppers, carts, cones, whatever he could find to make our sessions more like the ones in his books and videos. He really tried to create a professional environment for us on a nothing budget. For a while, the routine was we had to take out the middle seat in our van so my dad could fit the shopping cart he'd somehow managed to acquire, which he would fill with tennis balls and wheel out to the court. We must have made an odd picture, crammed into the van like that with a shopping cart. I'd sit up front with Venus, sharing a seat belt. The big girls sat in back. The cart would be jammed in the middle, alongside a couple brooms so we could sweep the court. It always felt to me like we were rumbling along in that van from Scooby Doo, our equipment jammed in so tight we'd have to stick our arms and legs out the windows to make room.
My mom would usually meet us at the courts after work. Eventually, it got a little tiresome lugging that cart back and forth each day with all the rest of our gear, so my father started locking the cart to the rusty fence surrounding the court. Saved us a lot of time and trouble. This was another example of my parents' approach: when something worked, they stayed with it; when it no longer made sense, they tried something else. We still took the balls home with us every night, in buckets and boxes and milk crates and whatever else we could find to carry them, but now it was much more efficient; now they took up a lot less room.
Man, those balls were precious to us. They were like money in the bank. I don't recall that we ever retired a ball from our collection. Daddy would take the oldest, baldest, flattest balls and turn them into a drill. He'd keep them in the mix with all the other balls, but when he pitched one of these special balls to us he said it would help us with our speed, our footwork, our concentration. I hated going after those balls—they just wouldn't bounce!—but Daddy kept them in play.
"At Wimbledon," he'd say, "the balls will bounce low, just like these special balls, so you have to be ready." Occasionally, we'd hit a ball into the woods or out onto the street beyond the fence, and we'd have to go looking for it before giving it up for lost. I hit more balls over the fence than my sisters—not by accident, necessarily, but by design. See, I discovered that when Daddy sent me across the street to collect the ball after one of my errant shots, it meant a break from the hard work he had us doing on the court, so I learned to play the angles at an early age.
Also occasionally, Daddy would add a new can or two to our collection, and that was always a real treat. Those fresh balls really popped. You could follow them all afternoon, up against the faded yellow of all those tired old tennis balls. It always felt like I had to bear down a little harder whenever a fresh ball reached the top of the pile and was put in play; there was a little more hop to it; it bounced off my racquet with a little more purpose and authority. Plus, it sounded great—the music of the game. I never liked to waste one of those new balls with a bad shot. It was like a missed opportunity. New balls are like that. To this day, whenever I smell a can of just-opened balls it puts me in mind of those new cans my dad used to bring out, when those brand-new balls made me feel like a real tennis player. They were so clean, so yellow, the felt so fine like the hairs on the back of your head . . . it was almost a shame to get them dirty. Of course, they all got dirty, eventually. Soon, they'd lose that fresh bounce and they'd get all dirty and there'd be no telling the new balls from the ones at the bottom of the pile—but that didn't mean we stopped playing. No, sir. It only meant we'd have to get all these other balls to pop with the same purpose and authority, until my father could get us a couple new cans.
That was the way of things for the first while. We developed our own little routine, our own little family dynamic, built around this funny little game. We were little girls smacking a ball around inside a box, that's what Daddy used to say. And, at first, that's all it was. But then we started showing flashes that we could really play, when I was about five or six and Venus about six or seven, so my parents changed things up on us. They went at it harder. They pushed us harder. That might have been their plan all along, but they didn't go harder until we showed them we were ready. And when we were, we went from playing just a couple hours a day four or five times a week, to three or four hours a day every day of the week. Some days, we'd even be out for two-a-day sessions, starting up at six o'clock in the morning before school, and then again after school, usually until dark. In the morning, we'd sometimes get to the court before the sun was all the way up, and Daddy would have us stretch or practice our swings until we could see well enough to hit.
I still do that, by the way—head out to practice at first light. It's my favorite time to hit, because everything's so quiet; you've got the whole day in front of you. I hate getting up early—really!!!—but I push myself. You can put in a full day's work before your opponent even gets out of bed, and that can give you an incredible psychological edge to carry into your next match, knowing you're fully prepared, knowing the other girl is sleeping in while you're out there sweating. And in those moments when I'm waiting for the sun to finish rising I'll think back to those early mornings on those public courts in Compton and Lynwood, keeping busy until my dad gave us the nod to start playing.
It got to be a grueling schedule, but none of us really minded it. Or we hardly noticed. We were all together. It was what we did, that's all. We didn't know any different. We didn't have a whole lot of friends outside of school. There was only time for each other, for tennis. My dad tried to make it fun for us. Every session had a theme, a structure. He'd set up all these creative games, with cones placed around the court, and there'd be a series of challenges we'd have to meet. Sometimes he'd put up little messages or sayings on the fence around the court to help motivate us, or maybe just to make us smile. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
You are a winner.
Say "Thank you."
(This last saying was one of his favorites.)
He'd write out these empowering messages on big pieces of paper or oak tag, or sometimes he'd have us write them out. Then he'd hang them up all around the court. If there was a theme to one of his sessions—like "Focus"—all the messages would have to do with the theme. He really put a lot of time and effort into this part of our training, because he believed it was important. He wanted these messages to resonate, for the visual image of the word to linger in our minds long after we'd left the court. Years later, when we moved to Florida, he had some signs made professionally, with his most effective messages—and those he put up permanently.
Basically, he was fooling us into thinking we weren't working, with all those games and messages, but after a while we caught on. We didn't care, though. We didn't mind working hard. I mean, we were kids, so of course we grumbled from time to time. Of course we did our little celebration dance whenever it rained, because that meant we wouldn't have to practice. Of course I hit a ball or two over the fence to buy myself a break while I went to retrieve it. But it wasn't so bad. Every now and then, my dad would reward us with some time to play in the nearby playground, or in the sandbox. That was another great treat for us girls. I used to love doing cartwheels. Whenever I had a five-minute break, I'd be in the grass alongside the court, flipping around. I spent a lot of time on the monkey bars, too, as I recall.
Even when we weren't playing tennis, our games were tennis related. One of our very favorite family games was UNO, which I always thought was fitting for us. We played that game all the time—and I mean all the time!—and it really instilled a champion type mind-set. After all, the point of the whole game is right there in its name—to be number one! No, UNO's got nothing to do with tennis, not directly, but it's a great teaching tool for any individual sport. It instills such a killer mind-set. Every game produces a winner, but UNO is one of the few games I can think of where you need to announce yourself as the winner just before you actually win, when you're down to one card, so everyone else around the table has a shot at you. It goes from every-girl-for-herself to every-girl-gunning-for-the-leader in a flash, and in this way it can really prepare you for the kind of competition you might face in a crowded tournament field. At first, it's just on you to take care of your own game, but then everyone is looking to knock you down. I don't know if my parents had this in mind when they introduced us to the game, but that's the way I always played it.
Sometimes, our competitions were more straightforward. When it was just us girls, playing in the yard at home, we used to play a game called Grand Slam. Usually it was me and Venus and Lyn. I don't know how we came up with it. Basically, it was like box ball, or four square. We'd hit a tennis ball back and forth with our hands. The court was just a square on the sidewalk. If the ball hit the grass, it was out. Sometimes, we threw some dirt on the sidewalk and it became a clay court—the French Open. Then we might throw down some grass—Wimbledon. I won so many majors right there in Compton, all because my dad had us thinking, breathing, living tennis so much it seeped into our regular childhood games.
It was everywhere and all around. As I look back on those moments playing hand-tennis with my sisters in front of our house at 1117 East Stockton Street in Compton, California, it puts me in mind of something my mom used to say when we were kids. "Whatever you become," she always said, "you become in your head first." That was a real mantra for her. Daddy took to saying it, too. Whatever it was we wanted to do or become, they'd tell us to see ourselves doing it, becoming it. It's tied in to what my dad was trying to do, getting us to visualize those words in our minds once we stepped away from his posters and signs. When Isha came home one day and announced she wanted to be a lawyer, my mom said, "That's great, Isha. Now go and be a lawyer in your head and the rest will follow." It was the same with tennis—even hand-tennis. We couldn't become champions for real until we became champions in our heads, and here we were, little kids, winning Wimbledon, winning the French Open, and willing it so.
* * *
It wasn't long before we sisters started making some serious noise on the local tennis scene. My father hadn't known a whole lot about that world going in, but he was a quick study. He always said he had a master plan for us—and that he was "a master planner"—and part of that plan was to collect whatever tennis insights he could find. He moved about by touch and feel; he added to our game plan by borrowing from the game plans of others; mostly, he watched local pros and picked up ideas and strategies for his sessions with us. By the time I was seven going on eight, and Venus was eight going on nine, Daddy was scouting area tournaments and academies, and following the comings and goings of all the young players in and around Los Angeles. It was a competitive environment—and a close-knit community. Everyone knew everyone else, so it's no wonder people started to pay attention to what he was doing with his girls on these courts all around Los Angeles. Our home courts might have been neglected and underused, but as we bounced around we turned a couple heads, that's for sure.
For one thing, there weren't a whole lot of African-American tennis players on the circuit at any age. That goes back to the entitlement or privilege that attached to the sport. For another, you didn't see too many entire families on those public courts. There were seven of us; we couldn't help but turn heads, and over time Daddy got to talking to all these people and tapping in to whatever was going on in L.A. for kids playing tennis. This was an important part of our development, and the first time we got any kind of exposure as players.
He signed us up for all these different events. One day when I was seven he came home and told us we'd be hitting with Billie Jean King, and of course we all knew who she was. Another big part of Daddy's grand plan was to get us to learn the game by watching the pros. He had us watching so much tennis on television, talking all the time about all these great players, that we were terribly excited. We thought Billie Jean would be hitting with just us, but that's not at all how it happened. There was a clinic, organized by World Team Tennis, and Billie Jean was one of the featured participants.
Even so, it was a big, big day for us. I remember going through our closet with Venus, trying to pick out just the right outfit, because even then I was into how I looked on the court. (In Compton, all five of us shared a closet, so it was always a frenzied time when we were scrambling to find something to wear.) We didn't really have proper tennis clothes, but we wanted to make a good impression. Lyn and Isha played that day, too. We all fussed over what to wear, and then, when we finally got to the clinic and started playing, Billie Jean actually walked over to us during one of the drills. I'm sure she was just being a good ambassador for the sport, making special time on each court with each group of kids—just like I try to do now when I'm asked to participate in one of these clinics, because of Billie Jean's example—but it felt to us like she'd come over just to watch us play. Like she'd heard about us and wanted to check us out. That was the kind of confidence our parents instilled in us when it came to tennis; that was how they had us thinking: there were the Williams sisters, and there was everyone else. Over and over, they kept telling us we were champions, that everyone in tennis would know who we were, and on and on. After a while, we started to believe them, but here at this World Team Tennis event it was too soon for all of that. This was just Billie Jean, making the rounds, working with as many kids as she could. She didn't know us from any other group of sisters out there on that court.
Unfortunately, the meeting meant more to me when I was looking forward to it than it did when I was in the middle of it, because I didn't play too well when Billie Jean was hitting to me. Plus, Venus did such a good job when it was her turn, so that made it even worse. I panicked, I guess. (I was so nervous!) I think I hit every shot long or into the net, but that's how it goes sometimes. You look ahead to some meaningful moment and set it up in your mind like it's going to be this huge, consequential deal, and then it just fizzles. The trick, really, is to find some takeaway moment in the fizzle and carry that with you instead, and here I managed to shrug off that I'd played so poorly and ended up crying because Venus played so well, and remember instead that I got to hit with the great Billie Jean King. That alone was pretty huge and consequential.
I think back on that Billie Jean King moment every time I look forward to an event or a milestone or a special opportunity. Why? Because it grounds me. It reminds me that we can take pleasure and pride in the thrill of anticipation, but at the same time we must be careful not to invest too heavily into any one situation, in case it doesn't work out the way we've planned. That's life, right? We get disappointed from time to time. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't look forward to anything, or even that we should keep our expectations reasonable. Not at all. What it means for me is to aim high and to know that if I fall short of the mark it was still worth doing. Whatever it happens to be, if it's worth looking forward to it, if it's worth taking aim, it's worth doing.
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.
Daddy was so proud when the story came out that he wanted to grab as many copies of the paper as he could for souvenirs. His idea was to drive around to all the houses in our community on the morning the papers were delivered and swipe them from people's yards. Not the most neighborly solution, to be sure. Not the most practical, either. I mean, here he was, excited that we were finally getting this positive publicity for our tennis, and at the same time negating all that publicity by taking away all those newspapers so folks couldn't read about us. He could have just called the Compton Gazette office and asked for some copies, or gone to the local drugstore and bought as many as he needed for about twenty cents apiece, but these options never occurred to him.
So off we went, on our family paper-grab. It wasn't the most logical operation. Daddy would drive the van up and down the street, and whenever he spotted one of those rolled-up newspapers on some driveway or front walk, he'd pull over, get out of the car, and scamper over and swipe the paper. Then he'd race back to the car and drive off. It was such an absurd scene, and we girls were sitting in the back of the van, giggling about it, until finally Isha suggested that they could hit a lot more houses if she was the one doing the driving. The rest of us weren't too happy with this idea, because it meant we'd collect all the papers we needed that much sooner, and after that we might have to go and practice. As it was, we were missing practice for this, and whenever we missed practice, for the weather or for any other reason, it was something to celebrate.
My father thought about this awhile and agreed this might be a better approach. At the very least, he might get us back on the practice court that much sooner. Only trouble was, Isha was just thirteen and couldn't drive. She said, "How hard can it be, Daddy?"
Daddy said, "Are you sure?"
Isha said, "Yes, Daddy. I can do it. I can do it."
That's how it was with us girls. Nothing was out of reach.
So that was the plan. Wasn't a very good plan, but it was a plan. Isha got behind the wheel. I climbed into the backseat with Venus and Lyn. Daddy walked alongside the van, and off we went. Only we didn't get very far. Isha had some idea what she was doing, but not a lot. She didn't have a great concept of space or depth or any of those things you figure out when you're an experienced driver.
She didn't understand how close she was to the cars parked on the side of the street, and she proceeded to run right into one of them. And then another. Took off a couple side mirrors along the way. It was crazy!
Daddy had managed to collect a couple papers before Isha started to lose control of the van, but now he was running alongside and yelling for Isha to step on the brakes. He was yelling, but mostly to be heard. Underneath the loud voice, he was surprisingly calm. He said, "Hit the brake, Isha." And then, when she did, he came up to her window and said, "Are you okay?" His tone was soft; he wasn't mad. Anyway, he didn't sound mad, and that was always one of the nicest, most reassuring things about my dad. We were just kids, so I'm sure we set him off from time to time, but he would just take a deep breath and let his frustration pass and then deal with whatever it was in a calm, patient manner.
Meanwhile, in the backseat, the three of us were trying to climb out the window. We were so scared! Isha was crying, crying, crying. Daddy was more embarrassed than anything else. Frustrated, too, because his plan had somehow backfired. Now he had to wait out there in the street and talk to all these people whose cars Isha had hit. Can you imagine! We didn't mention that we took their newspapers, just that we hit their cars, and then we had to drive over to the ATM to take out money to reimburse them for the damage, money we didn't really have to spare. I think it cost us over one hundred dollars, when if we had bought the papers at the newsstand it would have just been five or six dollars.
We laughed about it, though. Right away, we laughed about it.
We sat in the back and turned it into a song. Lyn made it up to poke fun at Isha, but we all joined in soon enough. We sang: "Ride a little, bump a little, tear the mirror off a little . . ." It came with its own little singsong melody. It got to be a long-running joke in our family, one of those Greatest Hits–type stories you take out and tell over and over again. Isha gets all red-faced whenever we bring it up, whenever we start singing, because it certainly wasn't her finest moment, but even now, all these years later, that little song can get us going. One of us will fall in to singing, and the others will chime in, and at the other end we'll just laugh and laugh and remember what it was like out there in Compton, back when we were all still making it up as we went along, learning the game by touch and feel, on some level knowing our world was about to open up for us in a big-time way.