Back In Compton, 'They Love Their Venus And Serena'

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From cracked and weedy courts in Compton, California, sprouted two of the greatest tennis players America has ever known. Venus Williams and Serena Williams remain a source of pride for Compton kids and adults today.

Wearing a white T-shirt with a Superman logo and a blue headband, 9-year-old Chanel Crutchfield stands on the well-kept court with a red racket in hand, while tennis coach Larry Ready and others instruct a group of young players on proper technique. Crutchfield is at Lueders Park, in Compton, California, just a topspin lob or two from where Serena and Venus Williams launched their tennis odysseys.

Crutchfield's tennis skills aren't quite at the Williams sisters' level yet, but whose are, given that Serena has won four consecutive Grand Slam titles and is looking to become the first American in the Open era to win a calendar Slam, and also to match Steffi Graf for most major titles in the Open era. Plus, Chanel says this is her first week in the sport, and she credits Serena and Venus for sparking her interest.

"They inspired me to play tennis," Crutchfield says. "They're really good and that's why I like them so much. And that's why I started playing tennis."

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Larry Ready recalls seeing the Williams sisters on Compton courts when they were still in strollers.

Crutchfield is the daughter of Compton councilwoman Janna Zurita, who is the daughter of former councilwoman Delores Zurita. Janna fondly recalls seeing the Williams sisters playing on courts all over Compton when they were Chanel's age and younger. She also says she went to her high school prom with DJ Yella, a founding member of N.W.A.

The hit summer movie "Straight Outta Compton" tells the story of N.W.A., but Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Yella are by no means the only stars the city can boast came straight outta here a quarter century ago. "This whole city, man, every time you mention the Williams' names, it's like: 'Compton!'" says Ready, who has been offering this free annual weeklong camp for years. "You know they're excited about them. They're really motivated and inspired. Even people driving by the courts, they'll yell, 'You ever call Serena and Venus to come over and help you?' They love their Venus and Serena."

Lueders Park did not have a tennis court when the Williams sisters hit their first serves, but they've left their footprints throughout Compton and the surrounding area, including on two outdoor courts at Tragniew Park on the west side of town -- where Ready used to hold his summer camp -- and the two courts at East Rancho Dominguez Park. Other residents mention Wilson Park and Compton College, which unfortunately no longer have their courts. Serena also mentions in her autobiography, "On the Line,'' playing at Lynwood Park in nearby Lynwood.

"They hit at a lot of places here," Ready says. "Talking to Delores, she remembered them hitting up at Dominguez, another guy at Rancho, another guy at the Compton Park. Their father took them everywhere he could get a court."

The Williams sisters started at such a young age that Ready says he recalls when their parents, Richard and Oracene, would play on the court while Venus and Serena sat alongside, rackets sticking up out of their strollers. The family played in Compton until 1991 -- when Serena was nearly 10 and Venus was 11 -- when they moved to Florida.

Before that, they practiced a lot. Sometimes three or four hours a day, and sometimes twice a day, with one practice at 6 a.m. before school and another after school until dark. Zurita recalls observing Richard's practice sessions and thinking, "I would hate for that to be my daddy."

"And then look what they turned out to be. It's like, 'Wow! Amazing!'"

Anthony Cartwright, the supervisor of recreation for Compton Parks and Recreation, also recalls seeing the Williams sisters playing all over town, and he can name professional athlete after professional athlete who lived or played in Compton, but his recitation still barely scratches the surface of the lengthy list that runs from the Williamses through Richard Sherman, Dennis Johnson, Lisa Leslie and Eddie Murray.

In fact, Tragniew Park is across Central Avenue from the Compton/Woodley Airport, where 15-year-old Kimberly Anyadike launched the cross-country flight that would make her the youngest African-American girl ever to pilot a plane across the U.S. Her sister, Kelly, also made history by piloting four planes in one day. Kimberly is now studying for her MCAT. So yes, the Williamses are not the only impressive sisters to inspire young people here.

"When you have those types of legacies where you have these types of individuals, the kids have some aspiration that it can be me also," Cartwright says. "Sometimes if they don't have some type of role model, it's different."

Or as college student Ladanya Section says during a break in the camp, the Williamses' success "gives me the motivation of actually going to school and trying harder and not giving up.''

***

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The courts at Tragniew Park are usually locked and deserted, save for a few weeds that sprout through the cracks.

"Yeah, well, there is a girl that is a champion from Compton, so anything is possible."
--Serena Williams, when asked in 2013 whether a woman from Turkey could ever be a tennis champion.

Serena and Venus have talked about hearing gunfire when playing on courts in Compton. "At first,'' Serena writes in her biography, "I just thought someone was setting off firecrackers or popping some balloons, but once I learned what the sound meant it would shake me up pretty good."

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Surrounded by trees, grass and a swimming pool, the Lueders Park tennis courts did not exist when the Williams sisters were kids. Today, they draw players like Kiaira Lewis for group lessons.

Their father tells far more harrowing tales in his 2014 memoir, "Black and White: The Way I See It."

Richard Williams writes about having to fight gang members just to play on the courts, once getting beaten up so badly that he had several broken ribs and 10 teeth knocked out from being kicked in the mouth: "To this day [I] wear my 'toothlessness' as a badge of courage.'" After that beating, according to the book, Richard retaliated by bringing a shotgun to the courts, which chased away the gang members briefly. He came back the next day and fought the gang leader. "I beat him for everything I was worth." Finally, the leader gave up and abandoned the court with his gang.

"It had taken two years and almost destroyed my body and my spirit,'' Richard writes of the gang battles. "But in that moment, none of that mattered. What mattered was the courts were ours."

Those early battles in Compton toughened Venus and Serena as well, much like growing up during the wars in the Balkans did for Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. As Serena said after complaining about some vulgar and racist harassment from a fan at a tournament in 2007, "I shouldn't have let it bother me because growing up in Compton, we had drive-bys, and I guess that's what my dad prepared me for."

Compton, fortunately, has changed significantly since those days. Crime, particularly homicides, has plummeted. As the website ComptonUp.org notes, businesses such as Target, Home Depot, Starbucks and 24 Hour Fitness have moved into the city.

When told that web searches for Lueders Park and Tragniew Park prominently brought up gangs bearing those names, Councilwoman Zurita points to the tennis courts at Lueders and the surrounding picturesque trees, grassy areas and swimming pool. "This," she says, "is what should come up."

Zurita says Compton needs to rebrand itself. After all, the city's reputation from the '80s and '90s does not seem to bear much relationship to the actual city on this day. Yes, there are still problems -- unemployment is still high -- but the city is doing better. This is reflected near the end of the practice session, when the players and instructors gather around the net for a group photo. As they pose for the camera, everyone shouts with joy: "It's a great day in Compton!"

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The Tragniew Park tennis courts are a far cry from the ones Venus and Serena Williams will be playing on next week at the US Open.

***

"The courts themselves were in sorry shape. There was broken glass every here and there. Cracks in the cement. Weeds poking through. Soda cans, beer bottles, fast-food wrappers. ... Wasn't exactly Center Court at Roland Garros, but it was all we knew."
--Serena Williams, describing the Compton courts in "On the Line."

A faded sign reading "TENNIS ONLY" hangs on the fence at Tragniew Park. The gangs may be gone, but aside from broken glass, the courts here still fit Serena's description. There are weeds and small plants growing from cracks along the nets. A green plastic garbage can sits alongside one net, as does a pile of litter. To prevent vandalism, there are locks on the gates that are seldom open, other than when Ready coaches players here during sessions on Saturdays.

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Anthony Cartwright, the supervisor of recreation for Compton Parks and Recreation, can rattle off the names of role model after role model with Compton roots.

Ready calls Tragniew "hallowed ground'' because of the Williamses, and says the courts are being resurfaced soon.

Over at Wilson Park, which is still a park but which now lacks tennis courts (they were removed and essentially relocated to Lueders Park), Tony Hawk helped fund the building of a $500,000, 12,000-square-foot skateboard park. And while there aren't any matches happening on the tennis courts at Tragniew or East Dominguez Rancho this particular afternoon, Wilson Park is filled with kids and teenagers practicing their skateboard tricks.

This phenomenon is not by any means restricted to Compton. Throughout the country, skateboarding and other sports have pulled kids away from tennis. Video games have also reduced the numbers of those playing sports.

"I think nowadays the kids have too many other opportunities to do other things," says Le George Mauldin, a tennis coach who hit with the Williams sisters as a kid. "When we grew up, you played outside sports. Now there are too many video games.

"A lot of what Serena and Venus have over these kids is they had two parents both interested in tennis. When they were off the court, they were still talking strategy. Now, parents bring their kids out to lessons, then they go home and that's it. They don't go over video and talk about the forehand."

Several people commented on the fact that Serena and Venus have not been back to Compton in years. Their sister, Yetunde Price, was murdered here in a drive-by shooting in 2003. Many believe it would be helpful for the community if the sisters came back and personally inspired residents, young and old alike. "It would be nice if they one day came back and did some things right here," Ready says.

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Perhaps a more visible tribute to the women who left Compton to become two of the greatest tennis players ever would attract more young players like Kaylani Polk

Richard Williams -- not the Richard Williams who is the father of Serena and Venus -- is a tennis coach and the executive director of the Venus and Serena Williams Tennis Academy at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Los Angeles. He, too, wishes the sisters would return. "Seeing Serena and Venus on TV is great, but if they come down and have a clinic once or twice a year, more girls would be involved, more boys."

And Ready adds, "It's not a question of whether they're giving back. It's just that Compton has been a little neglected when it comes to that."

Perhaps the Williamses and the city of Compton could work together on improving these historic courts and renaming them for the tennis legends. There certainly is something special about walking onto courts where two of the greatest tennis players in history got their starts, but the experience would be more impressive if the courts also bore the legends' names.

Oral histories passed down to younger generations is one thing, but surely the courts would draw more players -- and tourists -- if they were proudly identified by the names Serena Court and Venus Court, and if the gates were not locked, but open to all aspiring players.

"That's the dream. That is the dream," Ready agrees. "That's what a lot of the city hopes for, that they would do something like that and dedicate that park to them. That would be something awesome for the city and the community, and all it represents about Compton.''

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