There's the damn doorbell and you're still in your hangover and
you just know it's those annoying Jehovah's Witnesses. So you
fling the door open to ask them if they'd mind coming back next
century, and who do you see standing there but Venus and Serena
Williams, their beads bouncing, their braces gleaming, wanting to
know if you have a minute to chat about the Lord.
This is an article from the Sept. 21, 1998 issue
"At first people are a little shocked," says Venus and Serena's
mother, Oracene, who has taken them door-to-door since they were
babies. "They want to talk about tennis, but we'd rather talk
about the Bible."
You don't normally get the world's No. 5- and No. 19-ranked women
tennis players leaning on your buzzer, but these are the Williams
sisters of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and they haven't been within
a shuttle flight of normal in years.
How many world-class tennis players were kept out of junior
tournaments by their father? How many millionaire sisters have
only one friend--each other? How many wear skintight, cutout
tennis dresses that could make an abbot snap a rosary? How many
can say they speak French and are learning Russian and
Portuguese? How many sit down at a press conference and challenge
reporters to look up the derivation of words? (Last week's word:
The Williams sisters are cocky and insular. They're also
gorgeous, rich, smart, polite, gifted, well-spoken, huge and
improving like mad, and they'd definitely like to get you some
reading materials, if you're interested. "We go to rich
neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, everywhere," says Oracene.
"People slam doors on us," says Serena, "but that's their
problem. We don't take it personally."
They do take it seriously, 4 1/2 hours every week, including the
time spent writing letters and cold-calling people. At last
week's U.S. Open, Venus, 18, made it to the semifinals and
Serena, 16, won her second Grand Slam mixed doubles title in a
row, but the work they think is most important is serving up the
ways of the Witnesses to other players, coaches and their
families. They rush the locker room with their pocket-sized
Witness books, pamphlets and copies of The Watchtower magazine.
If the player doesn't speak English, they get her a book in a
language she does speak.
So far, they haven't won a point. "I'm not aware of any I've
converted, no," says Serena. But as their mother always says,
"They might slam the door this time, but next time it might stay
Witnesses don't sing the national anthem, say the Pledge of
Allegiance, accept blood transfusions or celebrate holidays,
including Christmas, or their birthdays. They believe that Christ
died on a stake, not a cross, and that exactly 144,000 people
will go to heaven. They believe that the man is the head of the
household and the woman is the "weaker vessel," a belief that
gets a little shaky when you see 6'2", 168-pound Venus blow her
women's-record 125-mph serve by some shivering Slovak.
The only problem is that the head of the Williams household,
Richard, isn't a Witness, which helps explain why he smokes like
a tire fire (a definite Witness no-no) and worships graven images
(himself, whom he calls King Richard). "Well," says Serena,
Some people in tennis wish the entire Williams family would fall
down a very deep well followed closely by a very snug lid, but
the truth is, the Williams family is the best thing to happen to
women's tennis since the scrunchee. Women's tennis has always had
more victims than a Red Cross shelter. It's full of young girls
with great backhands and facial tics. Mary Pierce needed a court
order to keep her dad away. Jennifer Capriati's father threw her
to the pros at 13. Just last week, Croatia's Mirjana Lucic showed
up at the Open after fleeing her homeland just to escape her
allegedly abusive father.
Not the Williams sisters. The Williams sisters may be a lot of
things, but they're not victims. I wouldn't become a Jehovah's
Witness even if its only spiritual requirement were facing toward
Hershey, Pa., and eating Milk Duds, but I admire the way they're
unafraid to stand up for their religion. Also the way they're
unafraid of tennis's virtually all-white press, tennis's
virtually all-white locker rooms and, come to think of it,
virtually all-white tennis. They say what they want, say it well
and hate to lose.
In other words, don't answer the door.