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Venus and Serena Williams are world champion tennis players. They are also each other’s biggest fans. As players, they’ve competed with and against each other. As sisters, they are forever inspiring and uplifting one another.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Andia Winslow. Our executive producer was Joy Smith. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
|The sun was just peeking up over the horizon and coloring everything a soft pink as Venus, Serena, and the entire Williams family climbed into their rickety van and headed out.
“You ready?” asked their dad, Richard from the driver’s seat.
“Yes, daddy,” “Yes, daddy,” his daughters answered sleepily.
Finding places to play wasn’t always easy just outside of Los Angeles, California…but Richard Williams knew a great spot in East Compton Park — past the swings and basketball hoops, past the cracked cement where tufts of weeds poked through.
“Here we are!” he announced.
The girls looked at each other, curious and excited.
It was the first time they’d ever stepped onto a tennis court.
|I’m Andia Winslow. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Venus and Serena Williams, beloved sisters and athletic superstars who have revolutionized the game of tennis and the role of women in sports.
|Venus and Serena grew up in a home that was full of energy and inspiration. The Williams lived in a humble white stucco house with a tiny backyard in Compton, California. They didn’t have much money but that didn’t matter — they were grateful to have each other. All five Williams sisters slept in one bedroom, giggling and whispering secrets well into the night. They were constantly playing games and putting on family talent shows too. Serena, the youngest, especially loved singing Whitney Houston songs.
That first day on the tennis courts, Venus was just four years old and Serena was three. When their dad, Richard handed them their tennis rackets they were so big it was hard for the girls to even hold them up. But Richard taught them how to grip their rackets properly, and get ready for whatever came next.
Step up to the service line.
Stay light on your toes
Venus and Serena blinked their eyes wide open so they could take in every move their dad made. Their three older sisters watched from the sidelines, racing to retrieve wayward tennis balls that went flying off the court. Their mom, Oracene, coached them on techniques too. More importantly, she filled the girls with confidence and calm. She made sure Venus and Serena knew they could do anything they set their minds to, no matter what.
Those first few lessons were challenging for sure, but after a little while, Venus and Serena were able to swing and make contact with the ball.
That was part of their lessons too. See, Richard asked some of the local kids at the park to come out and heckle Venus and Serena while they practiced so the girls could learn how to focus and believe in themselves, regardless of whether the crowds were cheering for or against them.
And you know what? It worked!
Venus and Serena learned to keep their eyes laser-focused on the ball, the net and each other. With the help of their dad, they soon started adding more complex shots to their game too, like the inside-out forehand and the topspin lob. They bound after the ball and tore across the court at lightning speed, daring each other to be faster, braver, bolder; their 3 older sisters always cheering them on.
You got this!
That’s right, just like that!
Yeah, that’s it!
At dawn each day, the whole family was up and ready to head to the park for practice. Venus and Serena wore their white tennis outfits with matching beads or braids in their hair. They ran drills up and down the baselines; their dad throwing hundreds of balls for them to hit back, until they were panting and exhausted, their arms sore and heavy.
Then, they piled back into the van and went to school.
|How’re you feeling, Venus?
Yeah Venus, you got this!
You’re doing awesome.
By the time Venus was ten years old, she was competing in junior tournaments—and winning! Her skills were already stunning. She was whipping out serves at 100 miles per hour! Serena desperately wanted to join her, but their dad felt she was still too young to compete. So, Serena joined her family in the car and cheered Venus on as she got ready for her matches.
Then, one day, when Venus was on the court, Serena slipped out of her seat and found her own match to play. See, she’d found an extra application for the tournament Venus was in. When nobody was looking, Serena filled it out and sent it in the mail. She knew she was strong enough and she was ready to compete.
Both Venus and Serena won their first matches…And then their second. And then their third. If their dad was upset with Serena for signing up to compete, he quickly let that go in all the excitement.
The Williams sisters were taking this tournament by storm, leaping and lunging, blasting out serves and backhands at record speeds! And of course, high-fiving each other between matches.
At the end of this wild day, everyone else was eliminated from the tournament except for two competitors: Venus and Serena.
They each stood behind the serve line, facing the other across the net. Tall and lanky for her age, Venus locked eyes with her tiny powerhouse of a sister, Serena. Their beaming smiles were almost identical. It was clear to everyone watching that they loved this game of tennis almost as much as they loved each other.
…the match started. The girls threw themselves into each and every volley. They zigzagged around the court, pouncing on the ball as the crowd “ooohed” and “aaahed!”
Serena had such a powerful serve. Her swings were lightning quick and she never stopped moving. Venus was even fiercer though. She seemed to be everywhere at once, lobbing the ball over the net with a resounding whack!
They popped back and forth across the green like popcorn kernels: Backhands, volleys, groundstrokes and drop shots…the crowd could hardly keep up.
Until…Serena missed a hit and Venus won!
Even if they got different trophies, as far as the Williams family was concerned the day was a win for everyone. Venus and Serena proved that they were unstoppable and the two little Black girls from Compton California were changing the face of tennis one serve at a time.
As they were heading home, Venus put her arm around her little sister.
“I wanna trade,” she said. “Take my gold trophy. I like the silver one better anyway.”
Serena looked into her sister’s eyes with pure gratitude, proud to have such an incredible partner in her corner. Venus was not just her big sister. She was her mentor, her cheerleader, and her best friend. It didn’t matter who took home the gold trophy and who took the silver. They were both champions. And the biggest prize of all was their sisterhood.
|This powerful connection between Venus and Serena captivated audiences, catapulting the sisters to fame. But for Venus and Serena the strength of their relationship was what kept them going no matter what life threw their way.
When Venus was almost twelve and Serena was ten, the Williams family moved from California, to West Palm Beach, Florida, so the two girls could attend an advanced tennis academy. The following year, Venus went pro and soon began breaking all kinds of records. She won championship after championship, becoming the second African-American woman to be ranked number one in the world! Even though she was still young, Venus was cool, calm, and completely in charge.
And through it all, Serena was right there with her, cheering her on every step of the way.
Serena traveled around the world with her sister, studying Venus’s every move and being her loyal hitting partner. If Venus lost, Serena was the one who got fired up, dissecting the match so they could figure out how to do better the next time.
When it was time for Serena to compete on her own, she played with a skill and intensity that impressed the crowds. While Venus’s strength was grounding and focussed, Serena was fierce and passionate as she raced and spun, returning each swing with a deep pock.
In 1999, Serena won her first Grand Slam, becoming the first African-American woman to ever win a major in the US Open. Venus and Serena also won together in doubles that same year. As they stood on the podium next to each other, feeling the heat of the roaring crowds all around them, they knew they had created this magic with and for each other.
|Both Venus and Serena skyrocketed from there. They fed off each other’s energy and momentum, channeling all those early morning practices with their dad; all those empowering talks with their mom.
They won Grand Slams together as a dynamic doubles duo and individually as well. They were ranked number one in the world week after week. And as their games got stronger, they began to travel the world, setting records collecting medals and trophies along the way.
Venus and Serena each developed a unique style on and off the court too. Venus advocated valiantly for women to get the same pay as male athletes in tennis championships, which was a huge deal. Serena championed body positivity and self love, campaigning for everyone to celebrate and appreciate their bodies, no matter their size or shape.
As young Black women, Venus and Serena were competing at a time where most other tennis players didn’t look like them. It wasn’t just their beautiful Brown skin that set them apart but also their strong athletic figures and curvy body shapes. Many people in the tennis community were used to seeing just one type of tennis player, so when the Williams sisters took the court in flashy outfits and sleek body suits some of the players, referees and even spectators made comments about how they looked and whether they should be allowed to play wearing their iconic and non-traditional outfits. But Serena and Venus didn’t let the negative comments of others dull their shine, they fought for their right play. They knew how important it was for them to embrace their own style, to celebrate their culture and their bodies so that everyone and anyone could see themselves as champions.
The Williams sisters were always there for each other too. When either of them was sidelined with an injury or struggled through a tough loss, they called on each other for moral and physical support. They urged each other on personally and professionally; always finding ways to uplift one another.
|In 2017, Serena won her 23rd Grand Slam, which is more than anyone else has ever won before. And there was no one Serena wanted to celebrate with more than her sister, her best friend and mentor, Venus.
After her historic win, Serena turned to the crowd and said,
I really would like to take this moment to congratulate Venus. She’s an amazing person. There’s no way I would be at 23 without her. There’s no way I’d be at one without her. There’s no way I’d have anything without her. She’s my inspiration — she’s the only reason I’m standing here today and the only reason the Williams sisters exist.
They hugged each other tight, the stadium lights shining on them both.
As Serena says, “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t Venus.”
Everything about this moment seemed to sparkle. The crowds rising to their feet were celebrating not only Venus and Serena’s incredible athleticism, but also their mighty bond as sisters.
To this day, they continue to blaze a trail of courage and strength both on and off the courts. They run multiple businesses and fight for human rights, gender and racial equality. They’ve built schools in underprivileged areas and refurbished the tennis courts back in their hometown of Compton. Even after stepping away from playing professional tennis, they continue to be leaders and rebels, redefining what it means to be the greatest of all time.
They treasure their shared past…
Appreciate the present.
And are curious about the future.
Because whatever curve balls life serves their way, they are in it, to win it, together.
|This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
This episode was narrated by ME, Andia Winslow. It was produced and directed by Olivia Riçhard, with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It’s written and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. Our executive producers are Elena Favilli and Joy Smith.
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.
A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!
Until next time, staaaay rebel!