John Jeremiah Sullivan, a contributing writer for the magazine, wrote this week’s cover story about Venus and Serena Williams. He is the author of “Pulphead” and “Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.” His last article for the magazine was about the reissue of “Absalom, Absalom!”
This article came together quickly. Why?
It can be kind of hard to get to the Williams sisters. It’s hard to line up interviews with them that are longer than 20 minutes. I can’t really blame it on diva behavior in this case because they were busy winning Wimbledon and the Olympics. Then some time opened up, and I thought we have to do it because these are people who right now are occupying a special, rare place in the history of the sport.
You originally planned to write a retrospective of their careers, assuming that they were mostly over.
When we first talked about doing a story, keyed to the U.S. Open, that was what seemed most compelling about Venus and Serena. It was supposed to be their twilight and really the twilight of American tennis. They were all we had, and now they were fading, and that seemed significant on a bunch of levels. And then they completely turned the ship around, the way they’ve done more than once. Serena in particular was like one of those little magic things that comes in a Cracker Jack box. When you turn it the picture changes. I opened the paper one morning and said, “Oh, my god, she’s on top again.” Even Venus, with that syndrome, who ought to be on a cane practically, was winning.
Their mother seems aware of their importance to tennis, but do the sisters themselves talk about it?
No. I baited Serena on that a little bit, but they’re not going to go there. They’re not going to diss their fellow players. They like more people and are better-liked inside the community of players than is generally conceded. It’s not their style to talk about it. Oracene, their mother, was just pointing to statistics. We just don’t have anybody else right now on the men’s or women’s side who realistically can be expected to perform that way. You can’t really count out someone like Andy Roddick or some others because things happen and a player can get on a tear, but by the odds it’s just them. Especially Serena.
And yet Serena wouldn’t talk about her status in the sport, even though she was willing to talk about all kinds of things.
She was refreshingly and in some cases surprisingly candid. But they would draw a line there. They’re going to speak respectfully about their competitors. For instance she talked to me about Sloane Stephens, another African-American female player, and about the beauty of her game. Had she wanted to she could have said, “She’s no Serena.” She’s not going to win 14 Grand Slams. But Serena is more interested in praising her and making a case for the more general health of tennis. Partly it’s professional. They’re invested in promoting tennis, even just at the level of getting people playing in clubs. They have the business savvy to know that that’s in their interest.
Their father seems to be a big part of their story. Did you try to talk to him?
I did. I started asking at the beginning, and kept asking until the end, but he’s just not doing much media anymore. I suppose he learned that it wasn’t doing him any good. I did see a brief interview he gave to Wimbledon TV, the closed-circuit show they broadcast out of the tournament, and he kept talking about how honored he was to be on Wimbledon TV. It felt a little bit like a Bigfoot sighting. He’s still a little visible. He hasn’t gone full hermit. But what else is there to say? The legend that he created is already playing out in front of all of our eyes.
His daughters haven’t followed his example and cut themselves off.
I really like the line that they’re walking. It seems very sophisticated and human. They are clearly tiptoeing back away from their father and the controversy surrounding him. But, still, they are not going to turn on him in any kind of conventional way because his work and his vision is such a big part of everything that they do. One of my favorite moments in talking to them was when Venus rolled her eyes over the e-mails that he still writes to her, picking apart her game. It’s what she has been hearing since she was in diapers.
The sisters are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Did they give you any more details about what visiting people’s homes in their religious capacity was like?
Their sister Isha said, “It’s a trip.” She also said that sometimes their fame gives them access to people’s houses. And they saw that as a blessing — getting to talk to people who would not ordinarily let them in. But there were other houses, she said, where people didn’t know who they were and were just as hostile or unreceptive as to anyone else. One other thing they said, which I thought was curious, was that they have witnessed to some of the players. According to Oracene, at least a few people have been curious, if not receptive.
If I were a tennis player I would be tempted to copy whatever they were doing: training, diet, religion, whatever. But maybe what sets them apart is simply raw talent?
Right. One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it’s just a way of being in the world. It’s a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They’d almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.
Do the Williams sisters play other sports?
Venus had been aware in her life of being able to do that. That’s what I was trying to describe in describing the video of her playing as a kid. You would just have to call it physical genius. She said now that she and her sister are older, they don’t cross train for fear of injury. It’s hilarious to think of them as old, but for tennis they are practically geriatric.
Their mother calls them “the two old black girls” holding up American tennis — an overwhelmingly white sport. How do they deal with that?
Although both of them went out of their way to acknowledge other black tennis players to me, they were pioneers. When you see the way their dad behaved at matches, you know he was not going to figure out how to be and survive in that world. That was not going to be his gift. That was something that they had to do. They are aware that so many people are ready to jump on them and say, “Oh, you are playing the race card every time things go poorly.” They don’t play into it, but neither one of them tries to pretend as if there aren’t strange and complicated racial issues flying around their heads all the time. Partly this is by virtue of just being in the spotlight. But it’s also specific to tennis. Even after all of this time we associate it with the country-club world, which is famously racially exclusive and bigoted. And still, the family was willing to talk about race. I was glad that they did, so I wouldn’t have to get all thinky-thinky about it. It’s better to hear it from them.