All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 1:America's Sweethearts

TV Announcer: Please welcome Venus and Serena Williams. 


Cecil Harris: Venus and Serena Williams took the stage in March of 2022 to open the 94th Academy Awards. 


TV Announcer: And we're proud to be joined by some very special movie lovers at a place that has played such an important part in our lives. 


Cecil Harris: Venus and Serena grew up not far from Hollywood, on the other side of L.A. in Compton. That's where they learned to play tennis with the help of their parents. And now a movie about their lives was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Original Song. 


TV Announcer: The first ever performance of the Oscar nominated song, Be Alive by Dixon and Beyoncé knowles-Carter. 


TV Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, Beyonce! 


Cecil Harris: The camera cut to a scene across town, an ordinary block in Compton, lined with single story family homes.  In the middle of the street, a group of young people walk together. The two young actresses who played Venus and Serena in King Richard were at the front of the pack. They headed toward a tennis court that had been turned into a stage. 


Beyonce: It feels so good to be alive, got all my family by my side. 


Cecil Harris: Beyoncé sang surrounded by dancers and musicians. Everyone and everything was outfitted in bright tennis ball green. Even the stage and the instruments. The performance honored Venus and Serena's  unlikely success story. 


Beyonce: I want you to tell these people where we are. 


Dancers City of Compton!


Beyonce: And yeah, I think you can sing it like you mean it. Tell them where we are. 


Dancers: City of Compton!


Cecil Harris: Beyonce's performance and song highlighted the pride and beauty of the place that gave us two of America's greatest athletes and icons. Even if you don't know much about tennis, you know Venus and Serena Williams. As universally beloved as they are now. Not that long ago, things were very different. Venus and Serena would not have been invited to open the Academy Awards. In fact, early in their careers, the sisters were repeatedly disrespected, even vilified. So what happened? When did Venus and Serena go from being disdained to adored? And how did they overcome hostility and build two of the greatest legacies in sports. 


Cecil Harris: On this season of All American, that's what we're going to find out. 


Cecil Harris: It's late August 2021. A hot summer morning in New York City. I'm waiting outside the largest tennis arena in the world, Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens. I'm here for the first day of the U.S. Open tennis tournament. The boardwalk outside the stadium is filling up with tennis fans and ticket scalpers. A biker rides by with a boom box. And then there's me standing off to the side, waiting for my production team. When they appear, their microphones and recording gear are already rolling. 


Producer: How's it going? Okay. Well, yeah. So. Yeah. You met Giana. Obviously you're here. Cool. Have you been waiting long? 


Cecil Harris: About 20 minutes, but there was no traffic for me. I got here much quicker than I thought I would. 


Cecil Harris: This is the first time our team has met in person. We've been talking over Zoom for weeks. 


Producer: Oh, okay. 


Cecil Harris: Yeah. I just drove over the Whitestone Bridge where there's usually traffic, but not today for whatever reason. And the Mets are out of town, so there's actually more parking than there will be tomorrow. 


Producer: Oh, great. 


Cecil Harris: The U.S. Open is the biggest event on the tennis calendar for many fans. For the next two weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people will swarm here, fighting through sweaty crowds for a glimpse of their favorite tennis stars. 


Albert: What do you think about this line? I mean, this is kind of. I don't think I've actually seen the. Line snaked back this far. 


Cecil Harris: That's one of my producers, Albert. And he's right. There's always something new each time you come to the open. As a longtime sports journalist, author and tennis fan, I've been to so many U.S. opens, it can be hard to keep count. 


Cecil Harris: Yeah, we haven't been here since before the pandemic, so this is different. They have. They could let you in and just assume that, you know, no one was worrying about anyone being sick or having a virus. But I just think they're taking such precautions now. Yeah, because they didn't have fans here last year. 


Albert: The last time you were here was 2019. 


Cecil Harris: Yeah, 2019. Yeah. As a fan, I came as a fan the first day to see the Althea Gibson unveiling. 


Cecil Harris: Even though I've come back to the U.S. Open year after year. This one feels different. 


TV Announcer: We talked about this yesterday. We talk about one of the Williams sisters. Now, there will be no. Williams sisters. Playing. At the US Open next week. Listen. 


Venus Williams: I'm going to miss the Open it's my favorite slam. I've had so many amazing memories there and I can't wait to get back out on the court whenever that is. I'll work with my team to make it as soon as I can. Venus, Venus, Venus. 


Cecil Harris: That's a CBS This Morning broadcast from August 2021 showing viewers a clip of Venus on Instagram live. Both she and Serena were injured and couldn't play. This was the first time since 2003 that the Williams sisters were both out of the U.S. Open. But as we walk through the security gates and onto the grounds, past the booths selling expensive souvenirs and high priced food and beverages, I notice something. I can still see and feel venus and Serena's presence. There they are pictured on banners dotting the walkway. I see their names engraved on a plaque listing previous winners at the Open. I also feel the Williams sisters effect among the players who are competing here today. I settle into the stands with my producers for a match featuring 17 year old Coco Gauff, a rising star from Florida. 


Journalist: This is the first open without the Williams sisters since 2003. And I was just wondering for you, how does it how does it feel not having them here? 


Coco Gauff: That's crazy. That's before I was born and I didn't realize that. 


Cecil Harris: That's Coco in a U.S. Open press conference from later that day. She started watching the Williams sisters with her family when she was just eight years old. 


Coco Gauff: That's probably the only reason why we spend so much money on tickets and travels to watch them play. But I don't know. I wish them both like a speedy, speedy recovery and hope to get back home for the rest of the season. You know, not easy to see, especially for me, since I've been a big fan. And obviously the reason why I'm here is because of them. So I guess it's a little bit weird not having at least one of them play. 


Cecil Harris: Coco is among a whole new generation of black tennis stars who say it was the Williams sisters who inspired them to play a stark contrast to when Venus and Serena were coming up in the sport. They were often the only black players in a given tournament. And as my producers and I discussed, Venus and Serena even seemed to have impacted the fans who come to watch tennis. 


Albert: And you were remarking about kind of the fans coming in just now, like it's a different kind of fans. 


Cecil Harris: It's a definitely a more diverse tennis crowd. I never used to see black families coming in. My family never came to the U.S.. I would come with a couple of friends sometimes by myself, that I see families here and we've seen some families here. 


Cecil Harris: I never came to the U.S. Open with my family, even though I grew up in New York City. I wasn't interested in tennis. How could I be in my neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn? There were no tennis courts. No one I knew played tennis. No one talked about tennis. And it was hard to see myself reflected in the sport. Arthur Ashe was the only prominent black American player I knew of as a kid, and he was a little before my time. So I found my heroes in other sports. Reggie Jackson in baseball. Julius Erving in basketball. And the goat himself. Muhammad Ali. Tennis was such a predominantly white sport. It still is, and it just felt inaccessible to me until the early nineties when I started hearing about a family from Compton, California. 


Richard Williams: Good racket, speed . Keep your head up. 


Cecil Harris:  That's Richard Williams on an ABC News segment from 1990. He's tossing balls to his ten year old daughter, Venus. She hits ball after ball, steadily returning his serves. Eventually, they pause to chat at center court, along with Serena, who is around nine years old here. 


Richard Williams: How do you feel about you hitting the ball right now? 


Venus Williams: Good. 


Richard Williams: And how about you a little bit more? 


Venus Williams: No, but you know,. 


Cecil Harris: I got hooked on the Williams family just a few years after this. When 14 year old Venus played her first professional match in 1994, I liked her look. Braided hair with beads. It reflected black American culture. And because she had game, I loved her star potential. She could become the first black tennis champion who I could follow from the beginning of her career to the end. I was covering other sports at the time. Baseball, football, basketball. But suddenly I was just as interested in tennis. I read everything I could about Venus Williams and her family. I learned about her younger sister, Serena. That the sisters were only 15 months apart in age and their dad was their coach. That they practiced on public courts in Compton. And as the years went on, I became even more enthralled with Venus and Serena, especially when they started winning. 


Cecil Harris: The champion of the 2001 United States open, Venus Williams. 


Cecil Harris: As Venus and Serena began to not just compete, but also excel, tennis started to become must see TV in America. The ratings were through the roof. I couldn't believe it. In 2001, CBS first aired the U.S. Open women's final in prime time. It felt like the sports world revolved around American women's tennis for the first time, all thanks to two sisters from Compton. But things weren't all rosy. I was in for a rude awakening when I went to the U.S. Open in 2002 to root for Venus and Serena. I was astonished to witness firsthand that many people were not ready for Venus and Serena to become the faces and the future of tennis. 


Cecil Harris: There were reasons for me to feel hopeful as a black man in America in 2002, the cultural tide was shifting in some really significant ways. 


TV Announcer: And the Oscar goes to. Halle Baerry and Monster's Ball. 


Cecil Harris: The Academy Awards that year felt like the Black Oscars. Halle Berry became the first black woman ever to win best actress. 


Halle Berry: This moment is so much bigger than me. 


Cecil Harris: Denzel Washington won best actor. Whoopi Goldberg hosted the show and Sidney Poitier received a lifetime achievement award. It was a really cool night for me and for the country. This was a time when black success felt front and center. Oprah was the queen of television. Colin Powell was one of the most admired people in America. Tiger Woods was the biggest name in sports and in a predominantly white sport at that. Now, I wasn't so naive as to think our problems with the racism were solved, but I was at least hopeful. Perceptions in America felt like they were changing, and the Williams sisters were another big reason why. In the early 2000s, Venus and Serena were achieving a new level of fame. By 2002, I was very invested in their careers. That June, I even flew to London to see the sisters play at Wimbledon. Serena beat Venus in the championship match. By late August, when the U.S. Open rolled around. I knew I had to be there. And I wanted a close friend of mine to join me. 


Mckessa: My name is Mckessa. I am the editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter, and I live in Los Angeles. 


Cecil Harris: The cast and I have been friends since 1993. We met as early career journalists working for the Associated Press in Albany, New York. We haven't decided yet what we'll do to mark 30 years of friendship. But in 2002 we went to the US Open together. 


Cecil Harris: I forget. Did you have to take a personal day because it was a Friday afternoon double header for the women's semis. 


Mckessa: So yeah, I guess I must of. I guess I was like, I'll make it work. I probably took a vacation day or whatever, but I was like, I'm going to be there. 


Cecil Harris: In every professional tennis season, there are four major tournaments. They're commonly referred to as Grand Slam events the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. They're held in some of the world's greatest cities Melbourne, Paris, London and of course, New York City. Although Mckessa lives in Los Angeles now, she remains a loyal New York sports fan, just like me. And at the 2002 U.S. Open, we went together as fans, not journalists. By the time the U.S. Open rolled around, Serena was ranked number one in the world. Venus was number two. Venus had also won the previous two U.S. Open titles. The sisters were playing through a really patriotic time in America. And in New York, especially. The 911 terrorist attacks had devastated the city less than a year earlier. But as Mckessa remembers it, the fans at the U.S. Open that year were not rooting especially hard for Venus and Serena. 


Mckessa: I always remember that, you know, even though they're both American, they didn't have a lot of support, as much crowd support as I would have thought. You know, and so I remember feeling like I had to be the crowd support. 


Cecil Harris: The women's semis about to begin. It'll be Venus Williams serving at the bottom of your screen to Amelie Mauresmo of France. Here we go. I. 


Cecil Harris: Rewatched that match to the other day from YouTube, and at times I would hear a lone female voice in the third set. Come on, Venus. You can do it, Venus. I think that was you. 


Mckessa: It probably was. It probably was. I remember I would scream because back then, I mean, I'm sure I was in like the nosebleeds that. 


Cecil Harris: Yeah, you were up there. 


Mckessa: Yeah. The U.S., you know, in the U.S. at the top rope. But we could project and I could project that. I'd be like, oh, you know, because, you know, wanting them to know. I want her to know that there was support.  


Cecil Harris: This was a semifinal match. Venus against a French player, Amelie Mauresmo. The stadium, which seats more than 23,000, was packed. And to be clear, the crowd was cheering in some moments very loudly. But who they were cheering for. That was notable. 


Cecil Harris: triple break point to even the third set. 


Cecil Harris: That's the crowd cheering for Venus's opponent. They wanted to see Mauresmo win the next point, which would have tied the match. This moment was shocking. An American crowd rooting against their own reigning champion. Let's hear it again. Venus serves. Mauresmo returns it. Then Venus stumbles and hits the ball into the net. 


Cecil Harris: copy and crowd cheers


Cecil Harris: And that's the crowd cheering her error. Suddenly it sounded like we were at the French Open with the crowd rooting for the French player. But no, we were at the U.S. Open in America, and the crowd was overwhelmingly rooting for Mauresmo, a Frenchwoman against Venus, the American. 


Cecil Harris: But to Venus's credit, she pulled out that game and won the match six four in the third. And for me, that says a lot about the mental toughness of the sisters, especially Venus, in that case, because she's in America. And that could be it could have thrown her off completely. Hey, I'm in America. And this crowd is rooting for the French woman against me. 


Mckessa: I think that's one of the things about them was their mental toughness. Always has been their mental toughness. 


Cecil Harris: In the stands that day. It was exciting to see Venus keep her composure and win the match. But seeing the crowd's reaction to her match was jarring. It was insulting. Venus was there trying to win her third consecutive U.S. Open title, an American player in America's greatest tournament and one of America's greatest cities and one of the most patriotic times in our country's history. And yet, the crowd could not root for this young black woman. It was a blatant rejection. It would have been nice to catch our breath after Venus's match. But right after that Serena was up and Mckessa and I had a feeling Serena needed us too. 


TV Announcer: Cover the court. That would be Serena Williams serving to start the second semifinal. Serena will be at the bottom of your screen. Lindsay Davenport at the top of this. 


Cecil Harris: Let's talk about Serena in that 2002 semifinal against Davenport. That was the second match of the day. We saw how the crowd reacted when Venus played Mauresmo, rooting for Mauresmo. So as I remember it, you and I, from the start, we wanted to make sure that Serena could hear us because we figured the same thing would happen. And really, it did. The crowd was for Davenport. 


Cecil Harris: The crowd exploded into cheers after Serena's opponent, Lindsay Davenport, won a point which brought Davenport just one point from tying the match. Serena had already won the first set, and the two of them were battling to win the second. But with two Americans on the court, it was becoming clear that one was the crowd favorite. It's hard to tell just from that one clip how much the crowd was rooting for Davenport over Serena. So let's break down what happened just before. Serena is trailing in the second set. She serves. She and Davenport rally. Then Serena hits the ball into the net. 


Cecil Harris: The crowd erupts.


TV Announcer: Davenport....


Cecil Harris: Moments later, Serena hits an ace, a serve Lindsay can't get to. 


Cecil Harris: They see her emotion following. 


Cecil Harris: Notice, the crowd's response is far more muted. now, Compare that also to this reaction after Serena hits a backhand that goes out of bounds. cheers


Cecil Harris: 6.4, Lindsay Davenport.


Cecil Harris:  now as the set continues neck and neck, here's that first clip you heard when Davenport hits a backhand winner down the line.cheersAnd the crowd roared. That's when it became clear: the crowd was for Davenport. 


Mckessa: Right. I think that, you know, Lindsay Davenport was positioned as America's sweetheart. Williams sisters were never considered sweethearts. 


Cecil Harris: America's sweetheart. Around this time in Hollywood. That term was reserved for Julia Roberts. Meg Ryan. Jennifer Aniston. Not Halle Berry. Or Angela Bassett. And when it came to tennis, as the said in 2002 Lindsay Davenport was America's tennis sweetheart. Even though Venus and Serena were just as accomplished. 


Mckessa: I knew the crowd was not going to go for for Serena. Most of the crowd I mean, it's funny now like some of Serena's other matches recent matches in. In the U.S. Open to see the love that the crowd has for her now, it's like it's it's it's amazing because I remember we all remember a time when that love wasn't there. And I think that she rallies to the side. And you always hear them talk about being American and like loving the that the adoration from the crowd. Now we expect it, but it was for so many years it was not expected. 


Cecil Harris: Serena won that semifinal match and she went on to defeat Venus in the final. 


Cecil Harris: Well. There it is, Serena Williams. She's the seventh player in tennis history to win three consecutive ladies and gentlemen title. Serena Williams and Venus Williams is the 2002 US Open champion. And the number one player in the world.


Cecil Harris: McKesson and I were proud of both sisters. But it was a bittersweet moment, too, because it was clear to us that Venus and Serena's greatness was lost on this US open crowd. Whatever hope I had been feeling lately about America's respect for African-American excellence, it was tempered. This was a moment of cold, hard reality. And not just for me. The very next day, I opened the New York Times to a column by William C Rhoden detailing what McKesson I had seen. He wrote, Race was at the core of the issue, and he described the US Open crowd as, quote, persistently ambivalent toward the Williams sisters. His point? No matter how well the sisters did, they would be criticized or at the very least not accepted. It was validating, seeing my own feelings expressed in print. The 2002 U.S. Open is just one of a series of complicated moments for the Williams sisters. As Nekesa said, these days we expect love and admiration for the sisters. But for so many years, it wasn't expected. Why did it take so long for them to feel the love? It's been a long time since those matches. Two decades. And since then, Venus and Serena have won many, many more titles. And outside of tennis, they've proven to be business moguls and fashion icons. They've grown as players and as individuals. But ultimately, Venus and Serena Williams are still the same people. It's America that changed. Next time on all-American, Richard Williams plan to take his daughters from the public tennis courts of Compton, California, to the world of professional tennis and the cost it had on the family. 


Cecil Harris: All American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chan and Jordan Bell. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Gianna Palmer. Our executive producer is Kameel Stanley. Extra production support from Norah Richey, Gwen, Igor, Vaya and Manolo Morales. Fact checking by Kelvin. Sea Bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis Wright Tremaine I'm your host, Cecil Harris.