EXCERPT: 'On The Line'

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.

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