All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 3: On Planet Venus

Cecil Harris: On Halloween night in 1994, I was at home in New York City. I turned the TV to CNN Sports Tonight. The show is no longer around, but in the nineties, this cable show was part of my daily ritual. Back before I could have every sports stat in the palm of my hand, I'd have to tune in for scores and highlights. 


TV Journalist: Got her first taste of big time tennis last night in Oakland. And like a movie script, she was a smash hit. CNN's Jim Huber has details that night. 


Cecil Harris: One story out of California overshadowed the rest. And I was up late to catch the result. An evening match in California meant a really late night in New York. 


TV Journalist: The day seemed like it would never end. This walk into the Oakland arena took forever for Venus Williams and her family. 


Cecil Harris: Now, this was not the first time I had heard of Venus Williams, but it was the first time that I and most other people would see her play. She was just 14 years old, and this was her first professional match ever. In fact, it was her first match she had played in years. That's because Venus Williams had not been playing junior tennis. The traditional path to going pro. Instead, she had essentially just been practicing for years, biding her time until she was old enough to compete as a professional. Whether she was good enough to succeed. We were about to find out. 


Cecil Harris: I'm Cecil Harris. This is All American from Stitcher. Venus and Serena Episode three on Planet Venus. Before there was Venus and Serena, there was just Venus. Venus became the talk of tennis, the sensation. But in 1994, she was also an unknown quantity, facing enormous expectations. This sort of pressure can be extremely hard on a young athlete. It can end a career before it starts. And before either of the Williams sisters became champions, it was Venus who had to go first, who had to face the pressures of turning pro alone. At this point in their journey. The Williams family was in Florida. They had left Compton a few years earlier to start training with tennis coach Rick Macy, who you heard from in our last episode. 


Rick Macy: Richard Williams called me. And then Venus and Serena selected me. So they moved. I went all in on that thing. And obviously, here we are today. 


Cecil Harris: The Williams family's inner circle has always been incredibly small. But during this time when the family was living out in Florida, Rick was included in that inner circle. It was pretty much the sisters and their parents. And Rick. Rick agreed to finance the Williams family's tennis experience, move them to Florida and coach the girls who are not yet teenagers. But when the family moved to Florida, Richard Williams made a surprising choice. 


TV Journalist: Richard Williams decided that his daughter had gotten just about as much as she possibly could out of junior tournament tennis. So Venus Williams simply dropped out of the system, which is the normal conduit in tennis big time. 


Cecil Harris: That's a report from ESPN explaining Venus's unusual path to the pros. In Florida, Venus was training hard under Rick and Richard, but Richard insisted that Venus not play in any tournaments against her peers. 


Rick Macy: Oh, it's total insanity. It's totally against the grain. It's unheard of. The normal conduit to pros. You play juniors. You get experience. You win. You lose. People notice you, might get sponsors, endorsements, whatever. So that's the normal way. 


Cecil Harris: But Richard was concerned the normal way would lead his girls to burn out. He wanted Venus and Serena to have a more balanced childhood that didn't revolve around junior tennis tournaments. He wanted them to focus on their schoolwork. So for those first few years in Florida, Venus and her little sister kept up training but didn't compete. 


Rick Macy: She hadn't played a match in three and a half years. No junior tournaments, nothing hibernating at Rick Macy Academy. 


Cecil Harris: Until in 1994, Rick and the Williams family decided that Venus was ready to make her pro debut. 


Rick Macy: And I'm telling you right now, I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn't know if she'd freak out and get nervous. You don't know. I mean, people get nervous and freak out all the time. She's walking off the street, enters a pro tournament. All this hype. Let's see what this kid's going to do. So I didn't know if she would spray balls all over the place like missiles going from North Korea. I didn't know what was going to happen. 


Cecil Harris: Now, if you saw the movie King Richard, you might remember this tournament. It's the climax of the film. The movie tells the story of this tournament a little differently than what actually happened in 1994. The truth is a bit more nuanced. We'll tell you what we know from our reporting. On the day of her first professional match, Venus walked out of a tunnel and into the Oakland Coliseum, where she would be competing. She wore a baggy white sweatshirt and lugged a big blue tennis bag over her shoulder as she entered. She was swarmed by flashing cameras. Here's more from that CNN report. 


TV Journalist: According to the data, California United completed her first ever professional match. Please give a warm bay area welcome to Venus Williams. 


Cecil Harris: Venus was lucky to be debuting as a pro now at just 14 years old. As CNN reported, the tennis rules were about to change in a few months. Venus would have needed to be at least 15 to compete as a pro. 


TV Journalist: But just in under the wire, the much heralded phenom took the court in her first pro match against former NCAA champion Shawn Stafford. 


Pam Shriver: Every player in the draw wanted to see it themselves. 


Cecil Harris: That's Pam Shriver. These days, she's a tennis commentator for ESPN and Tennis Channel. Back then, she was a pro tennis player who also competed in the tournament in Oakland. She and many players sat in the stands to watch Venus's first match. Like Venus, Pam was once a teenage tennis phenom herself. She understood the pressure Venus was facing. 


Cecil Harris: What do you remember about the scene that night? I mean, the anticipation for this 14 year old who people had heard about but were going to see play in a women's professional tournament for the first time. 


Pam Shriver: Right. And there's very few players, maybe five or six in my 40 years that the debut match is so meaningful and so strikes curiosity for everybody. And it might be Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Venus. And it was so unusual because Venus had chosen a different path in her developmental stage. Mostly when you see a potential phenom, you know a lot more about how they're going to compete during a match. Whereas this was just all we had seen. Her really was play a handful of exhibitions and they were mostly doubles and celebrity driven. Not necessarily what I would call hardcore tennis. 


TV Journalist: Though she appeared nervous at times, Williams took advantage of Stafford double fault and won it in straight sets six three and six four. 


Cecil Harris: Venus did it. She won her first professional match and handily, too, at a post-match press conference, a confident Venus said she was a little surprised that her nerves didn't get the best of her. But as for her win, overall-- 


Venus Williams: I wasn't surprised because I know I can play in that. No one's going to stop me. 


Cecil Harris: No one's going to stop me. Venus said this was such a big smile. It was endearing. She seemed so comfortable in the moment. Confident, but not arrogant. Happy to be there. 


Pam Shriver: I think Venus showed a lot tonight. But we should in Russia and just take our time. And let's hope in the next three or four years that she develops into the player that she can play for the next 15 years and be Aatop player. 


Cecil Harris: That's Pam Shriver again. But in 1994, being interviewed after Venus win for that same CNN segment, I'm curious, did you underplay it just a bit or did you think, oh, watching Venus at 14 all she has a chance to become one of the all time great players? Or is it just too early to make that determination about her at 14? 


Pam Shriver: I think at 14 it is too early. And you can you can say if everything goes just right. Of course. But as we've kind of seen from so many different champions and all sorts of sports, things can happen that just sideline a career. And it could be for any number of reasons. So, of course, when you when I observed that talent as a as a tennis player, as as an athlete, I was impressed. And I knew that if things went the right way, of course, she could be one of the best. But you just never know. 


Cecil Harris: But that first match was just the first match of the tournament. The next day, Venus had to play the second best player in the world. 


Pam Shriver: That match was even more anticipated than the first round match. I mean, to play such an established star in a Roger Sanchez Vicario  multiple major winner. Such a stubborn competitor. That was truly the first measure for Venus. 


Cecil Harris: Unfortunately, this match was not televised, and this being 1994, the rest of the world and I would have to wait until the results came out the next day. But of course, Venus coach Rick Macy was there along with Richard, Venus, and Venus's mom, Oracene who Rick sometimes calls by her nickname, Brandy. And Rick says that with nerves running so high, the match almost didn't even take place. 


Rick Macy: Venus forgets her bag at the hotel, and Richard's going, Okay, well, we're just going to have to default. And I'm sitting there going, This is insanity. I cannot believe because what is default? She'll learn more about this. She's not going to forget her bag ever again. Okay. And that's where Oracene, when Oracene got involved, things changed a little bit. Okay. As you'll see in the movie. And she took a taxi back to the hotel. They delayed the match. 15 minutes. Okay. But Venus was crying. Brandy went back to the hotel and brought back the clothes. And that clothes? J.C. Penney's. It was just an outfit. No logos. Five, 14.95. I don't know. And it really didn't matter to Venus. 


Cecil Harris: The tears dried and the match went on. Venus stepped onto the court and her tan shirt and shorts with blue beads in her hair. The day before for her first match, there were around 900 people in the stands. Now for her second match, 6000 spectators were there in women's professional tennis, matches are best of three sets. The first player to win two sets wins the match. Venus actually won her first set against Arancha Sanchez Vicario. She was off to a very strong start. But tennis matches are unpredictable and can shift in a hurry. The mental side of the game is just as important as the physical. And according to Rick Macy and the movie King Richard, after the first set, Venus's opponent, Sanchez Vicario, took a long bathroom break as a strategy to try to interrupt Venus's momentum. 


Rick Macy: Venus didn't even know what was going on. So for 10 minutes, she's standing right there back. And I can see this like it was yesterday. She didn't know what to do. The whole thing was just like, where did she go? The girl go to McDonald's and get a hamburger. I mean, Venus didn't even know what was going on. She just went to the go to the bathroom. And so the whole thing flipped on that right there. And the girl came back and Venus became a 14 year old and then just kind of rushed. And then she lost that set. And the next set. 


Cecil Harris: In a 2021 USA Today article, Venus mentioned that this bathroom break caused her to fall apart, and King Richard suggests that it completely changed the outcome of the match. But after more reporting of my own, I'm convinced this match altering bathroom break did not actually happen. Remember, this match wasn't televised. So I've dug into other coverage of this match all the newspaper and magazine articles from 1994 I could get my hands on, and none of them mention anything about a long pause in play that affected Venus's momentum. Plus, we spoke with someone who was actually at the match, Janet is a longtime sports reporter and was covering the match for The Washington Post at the time. She told us that she did not remember a bathroom break. But what we do know is this If a bathroom break did happen, it would have happened between sets, not in the middle of the set as the movie depicts. The other thing we know is that if it happened, it would have been much shorter. If it had been 10 minutes. That would have completely captured the press's attention and it would have come across like it does in the movie, like a cheap shot. Now, it's still very possible that a short, inconsequential break did end up being significant to Venus. But ultimately, Venus lost fair and square to Sanchez Vicario. 


Rick Macy: She was upset. I think she cried. And then when she walked outside of that auditorium, people were screaming her name everywhere, signing autographs. So that kind of ease, the pain a little bit. 


Cecil Harris: Although Venus lost, she had shown she could hold her own against just about anyone. At just 14 years old. After that match in Oakland, she was a star. 


Oprah: Richard Williams coaches and manages his daughter Venus, his career as well as her younger sister, Serena. 


Cecil Harris: That's Oprah in 1995. Venus and Richard made a short audience appearance on her show. 


Oprah: What kind of a schedule do you have, Venus? 


Venus Williams: I don't even have a schedule yet. I don't even know what tournaments I'm going to play, but maybe about five. My dad lets me. 


Oprah: About five if he lets you. 


Venus Williams:  yes. 


Oprah: So school comes first? 


Venus Williams: Yes, it still comes first. 


Oprah: And how The grades? 


Venus Williams: I have straight A's r. 


Oprah: Great!. 


Cecil Harris: It wasn't just Oprah who was interested in Venus. 


Rick Macy: Every major manufacturer, apparel and every major racket supplier came calling. Everybody. 


Cecil Harris: By now. I was reading everything I could about Venus Williams. I knew that Reebok signed her to an endorsement deal, a deal worth $12 million over five years. But Venus still had yet to play in any of the four Grand Slam tournaments. In many people's eyes, these tournaments are the only ones that matter. And the Grand Slam event around the corner was the U.S. Open. How would Venus fare on one of tennis's biggest stages? .


Whitney Houston: Listen, this is an honor. This is an honor to help celebrate the opening of the Arthur Ashe Stadium. This is incredible.. 


Cecil Harris: That's Whitney Houston at the opening ceremony for the brand new Arthur Ashe Stadium during the 1997 U.S. Open. It was a big night.The open was paying tribute to Ashe, America's only black grand slam champion in men's tennis. The event opened with Jeannie Ashe, Arthur Ashe's widow. She talked about inclusion in the sport, and now tennis had a poster girl for the progress the sport had made. The sensation who was the talk of the town making her U.S. Open debut at the age of 17. Venus Williams. 


TV Journalist: And by the way, 119 miles per hour. By. Down the T the fifth. An hour and 43 minutes. Venus Williams showed us a little bit of everything in her debut. 


Cecil Harris: Venus won her first round match. Then she won again, again and again by day 11 of the tournament. Venus was still in it, which came as a bit of a surprise because she was an unseeded player, meaning she was considered a complete long shot. The tournament started with 128 players in the main draw. Now, there were four players left. Venus was one of them competing in the semifinals, in the semis. Venus faced a player from Romania named Aryna Sabalenka Mid-Match as they were walking to their respective chairs before switching sides on the court. Something truly shocking unfolded between Venus and her opponent. 


TV Journalist: As we were going to commercial at the end of the last game. Watch this as they reach the chair area watch is for Leah and a whistling along there and it looks as though she deliberately collided with her opponent, Venus Williams, stepping out of her stride to get her leg or knee, it appeared into the leg of Venus Williams. 


Cecil Harris: The CBS announcer here is revealing for the audience what viewers at home had just missed over the commercial break. Venus's opponent bumped right into her on purpose. This shocked me when I was watching at home. It just isn't done. But for those who don't follow tennis, it might be easy to thank a bump. What's the big deal about a bump where no one got hurt? 


Scott Price: It's so minor compared to, you know, any kind of physicality in basketball or football or hockey or whatever. Just just a slight bump into each other. 


Cecil Harris: That's Scott Price, the longtime Sports Illustrated journalist and author we heard from in the last episode. I wanted to hear from Scott because he was actually there at the stadium that afternoon covering the event. He was sitting not far from the incident. And though the bomb wasn't exactly a brutal collision, Scott had also never seen anything like it in tennis. 


Scott Price: For the most part, they never look each other in the eye. And there's this sort of, you know, one lets the other pass and there's certainly no physical contact whatsoever. But it was clear that Spurling had been irritated or annoyed or just was being flat out mischievous or whatever, but she was not going to take a step back. 


Cecil Harris: Scott kept his eye on for Leah as she took her seat during the break in play. 


Scott Price: And I remember Spur Leah's face where she sort of looked up at her box and kind of grinned, like, yeah, I did what I was told or I showed you. I'm going to, you know, she knew what she was doing, I guess, is what I'm saying. And, you know, it was sort of this thermonuclear bump that, you know, went round the world and created all manner of controversy at the open. 


Cecil Harris: The cameras caught spur. Leah's smile too. 


TV Journalist: Now we're going back here to see Spîrleah looking up toward a box, presumably where her coach and friends are and with a smile. And Venus is all business here. Yeah, she's getting ready for the next game. 


TV Journalist: Yeah, she just handled that whole stupid incident a lot better. 


Cecil Harris: Spîrlea was trying to intimidate Venus, and she felt entitled to do so just in case there was any doubt as to spur players intentions. She put them to rest after the match. Instead of apologizing to Venus or even playing down the moment Spîrlea added fuel to the fire when she met reporters for her press conference and said this. 


TV Journalist: But I mean, she thinks she's in Venezuela and that she's not going to turn. I'm sorry. 


Cecil Harris: She feels this tape from CBS 60 Minutes is a little hard to hear. But what Spîrlea says is that Venus, quote, thinks she's the thing Venus Williams, and that she's not going to turn. In other words, who does Venus think she is? And this is where the 1997 U.S. Open went off the rails. 


TV Journalist: And then Richard stirred the pot further by, you know, calling Spîrlea, a big white turkey. 


Cecil Harris: That's right. Richard fired back and called Irina Spîrlea, quote, a big, ugly, tall, white turkey. I remember understanding Richard, wanting to defend his daughter. To me, his words weren't any worse than Spîrlea attempt at physically intimidating Venus and essentially telling her, You don't belong here. But Richard's swipe at Spur Layer ultimately, unfortunately, put Venus on the defensive. Reporters seized on his big, ugly, tall, white turkey comment. The predominantly white media focused more on what Richard had said than on what Spîrlea had done. Scott Price was at the contentious press conference where reporters asked 17 year old Venus to respond to Richard's comments. Scott saw one black reporter walk out in protest of his colleagues questions. Venus was clearly uncomfortable. We don't have footage of this moment, but here's what she's been quoted saying to the reporters. I think with this moment in the first year and Arthur Ashe Stadium, it all represents everyone being together, everyone having a chance to play. So I think this is definitely ruining the mood. These questions about racism, the bump, the name calling, the whole episode completely overshadowed how the match between Venus and Spîrlea actually ended. 


Venus Williams: [screaming] 


Cecil Harris: That sound you hear is Venus screaming. She's jumping up and down like a pogo stick. Her red, white and blue beads flailing. After this win against four player in the semifinals, Venus faced Martina Hingis, the number one player in the world. It was the first championship match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Venus had made it. But in the final, she wasn't quite good enough to beat the player known as the Swiss Miss. 


Cecil Harris: Although Venus fell just short of winning the 1997 US Open, it was extraordinary that she had made it that far at all. It was still a happy moment when Venus stood next to the Swiss Miss to receive her second place prize, a Tiffany Silver Plate. 


Venus Williams: Trophy to say okay. First of all, I want to thank my God Jehovah because without him I wouldn't be here today. And I want to thank my family and my dad. And I want to thank New York crowd because you guys were there all the way with me. And I'm sorry I couldn't pull it through today, but Martina played a little better than me, and she was able to handle the situation a bit better. And I don't think you guys could ask for a better winner for this tournament. 


Cecil Harris: Venus's first grand slam had been a tumultuous one. But at this moment, after being in the middle of a storm that had become the biggest story of the tournament, Venus was so gracious, all smiles and the crowd loved her. She finally had a moment that topped her debut in Oakland three years earlier. Two years later, Venus was still the big star in the Williams household, but Serena was starting to catch up. Finally, a pro too Serena joined her big sister at the 1999 U.S. Open. Serena's arrival on the tour was much quieter than Venus's. Serena had officially turned pro in 1995 at 14 years old. When she played in her first match, there was no media circus. Serena lost to the 149th ranked player in the world. With Venus their first to blazed the trail, Serena didn't face the same expectations, media scrutiny and even outward hostility from other players that her older sister did. She skated more under the radar as Venus experienced the wild highs and lows. And as the 1999 Open unfolded, both Venus and Serena kept winning their matches until Venus faced the Swiss Miss again, this time in the semifinals. This time around. There were no smiles from Venus when she was eliminated. But Serena was still in the tournament. She won her semifinal match and advanced to the final the following day. Her opponent, the Swiss Miss. On match point in the second set tiebreak, Serena's opponent hit a backhand out of bounds. Suddenly, the U.S. Open had a new champion, 17 year old Serena Williams. She had defeated the Swiss miss. Serena held her hands over her heart and smiled and caught her breath. It was an emotional moment. Serena walked over to give her mother a hug and on her right was Venus. Venus didn't seem like her usual self. She had her black Reebok hoodie over her head. It was tied up around her face. 


Scott Price: It is the only time that you saw it. It's sort of written on Venus's face. She looked like she was in mourning. 


Cecil Harris: Remember Venus herself had lost twice to the Swiss Miss at the US Open. Today she watched from the stands as her little sister emerged triumphant. 


TV Journalist: Ladies and Gentlemen, the 1999 U.S. Open women's singles champion Serena Williams. Well, it seems like forever. She shared everything with her sister, Venus. But now the stage belongs to Serena. U.S. Open champion. 


Cecil Harris: This was the first time either of the Williams sisters won a Grand Slam tournament. Most people thought Venus would do it first, but Venus was sitting with her parents, looking on glumly as Serena raised the trophy to thunderous cheers. 


Scott Price: She had her hood, I believe, over her head. You know, she barely clapped. She she her expression did not change. She looked like, you know, this is horrible. She didn't say it. And nobody really articulated, including Serena, afterwards and afterwards, it was sort of like just a coronation and feeling about it. 


Cecil Harris: After the match, Scott hung around the stadium to try to find out more about how Venus reacted. 


Scott Price: Late that night. I tracked down Oracene well after everybody had gone and she was sitting alone in the in the players lounge. And she just told me about how the night before. You know, Venus didn't sleep at all. She said to me, she thinks she's the oldest meeting, meaning Venus. She should have been the first that maybe she should have been tougher. She talked on and on about just how tough it was the night before the final and how crushing it was for Venus, as the oldest, to not win first. I think it took a long time for Venus to get over that, and she was incredibly honest about how this new dynamic of Serena coming really was putting a great strain on the family and on the sisters and on Venus specifically. 


Cecil Harris: Serena suddenly overshadowed her big sister for the first time. Her win at the U.S. Open was a joyous occasion for the family, but one with mixed emotions for Venus. And it was surprising for many who had been following Venus career closely. 


TV Journalist: Did you expect it to come so soon, Serena? 


Serena Williams: I don't know. I've actually been working for this tournament since the Wimbledon, since I wasn't able to play. And I was like, I have to do well, the open. But I mean, to actually do it is is one thing and to say it is another. 


Cecil Harris: So this is footage from Serena's post-match interview when she sat down with CBS's Michelle Tafoya and Patrick McEnroe. McEnroe asked Serena if Venus had given her any pointers before the final. Serena told him that she had her own strategy mapped out and that Venus had a tough day the day before. 


Serena Williams: Because she may have not had enough fluids in there. And I really feel terrible and I was I'm pretty down day for the Williams so Martina played some great tennis last night and she played some great tennis and I really felt like it came easy. I really had to work. 


Oprah: Did you have a moment out there on the court? We saw the celebration to exchange any words with Venus? 


Serena Williams: No, not really. She was always just screaming, saying great job, and she was so supportive in the crowd. 


Cecil Harris: Although the footage from the women's final seemed to show a glum Venus. Serena maintains her sister had her back. At 17 years old, Serena Williams was the U.S. Open champion, and it was clear that she would not have been without her older sister, Venus. The Williams sisters enjoyed a lot of crowd support at the U.S. Open in the late nineties. The sisters were just getting started in their pro careers, and the public seemed excited to see them winning. But a few years later, that all began to change. 


Cecil Harris: All-American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chen 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 Joanna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchie when we go there. And Manolo Morales. Fact checking by Kelvin. See bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis. Right. Tremayne. I'm your host, Cecil Harris.