EXCERPT: 'On The Line'
Read an excerpt from Serena Williams' new book.
Sept. 15, 2009— -- 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.
Read an excerpt of the book below and head to the "GMA" Library for more good reads.
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.
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