Commentary

Pair of aces

Let the vindication of Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena, begin

Updated: August 26, 2012, 1:07 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Williams Sisters IlloIllustration by Mark SmithGoing into the U.S. Open, the Williams sisters' record in grand slam events is nearly unmatched.

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LATE ONE JULY afternoon at Wimbledon, after rain had backed up matches like airplanes on the tarmac, a Dutch journalist stood above No. 18 Court, watching the final match of the soggy day: Venus and Serena Williams, at dusk, against Vesna Dolonc of Serbia and Olga Savchuk of Ukraine. The journalist was puzzled, having spent the past two days stalking and observing Richard Williams, the oft-maligned father of the most accomplished siblings in modern sports. So he turned to me and asked, "Has he always been this mellow?"

"No," I answered, "but he can be now. He's won. All debates are settled. The rest of his life is a victory lap." The grounds at Wimbledon are a museum for Venus and Serena, with photos of their championships illuminating the stairwells. And to no one's surprise, this year's tournament ended with them victorious once again -- Serena the singles champ for the fifth time (equaling Venus' total), the two of them doubles champs for the fifth time. Less than a month later, Venus, 32, and Serena, 30, returned to the grounds for more victory laps, the younger Williams winning her first Olympic singles gold, the two taking doubles gold for the third time.

Throughout the Wimbledon fortnight, Richard sat on the second floor of the media center, smoking Mores and holding court, greeting and being met by the tennis family as royalty. Tracy Austin laughed and shook his hand. The ageless doubles machine, Leander Paes, came over for a warm embrace. Writers asked for a minute and received an hour.

Burrowed underneath his warmth, and the triumphs, is fuel -- the fire of slights before the victories. "They never wanted us here," Richard said one afternoon at Wimbledon, referring to the tennis establishment that ridiculed the beads in his daughters' hair when they first arrived and questioned the way he coached them -- always seeming to find a way to suggest that his black girls didn't quite belong. He continued: "There was only one way: Win and make them deal with us. Win and they have to give you a seat at the table, even if they don't want you there."

The Williamses have won biggest. Eli and Peyton Manning have Super Bowl rings. The DiMaggios, Aarons, Ripkens and Boones were terrific baseball families. Maurice and Henri Richard won a combined 19 Stanley Cups, and the Bryans are a legendary doubles team. But none of those siblings can each claim to have been the undisputed best player in his sport. As the Williamses prepare for the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 27, their record in grand slam events is nearly unmatched: winning a total of 21 singles and four mixed doubles titles and teaming for 13 doubles crowns. They both have four Olympic golds (one each in singles, three in doubles). Each has been a world No. 1. Serena is in the conversation for the title of greatest female player ever, having captured the career grand slam.

Winning changes the narrative, provides the balm for wounded pride and sensibilities, suggests the basis for indirect apologies from those who doubted, who resented. The idea that Richard was improperly raising his daughters for tennis greatness because he kept them from playing too many tournaments as juniors has been massaged into wisdom; neither has suffered the burnout of other prodigies because of his foresight. The whispers that fashion lines and reality-TV shows indicated a lack of focus have disappeared faster than Serena crushed Maria Sharapova in the gold medal match.

The conversation has been reshaped with respect. Some elements of it are technical: the super-slow-motion dissection of Serena's serve mechanics, no small triumph when few black athletes are credited for anything beyond athleticism. Others are personal: the valiant nature of Venus' fight against Sjogren's syndrome; Serena's life-threatening pulmonary embolism; and the overlooked fact that their play suffered in 2004 after the murder of their older sister, Yetunde.

Wherever the conversation goes, the fight for respect is over. Each victory reminds us that they've fulfilled nothing short of the American dream. All they needed was a chance; they took care of the rest.

They took their seats at the table.

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