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BREAK POINT

VENUS AND SERENA WILLIAMS NO LONGER ANSWER TO THEIR FATHER. NOW, RICHARD ANSWERS TO THEM

Remember the 'hood, Serena! Remember the Crips and the bloods, Serena! Remember Compton, Serena!

She saw him in his box seat, spitting all of these words out, but who could hear in this damn fool place? She looked his way again, saw him sucking down his 11th and 12th cigarettes, and she wanted to say, "What, Daddy, what, what, what? What are you trying to say, Daddy?" but the boos were too loud, and the comment, "F--- you and your sister," was too sickening, and so she tried to read her daddy's mind, tried to imagine what he was saying on a rude, prejudiced day like this.

She looked up at the Indian Wells scoreboard, and she was down a set. Down a set to Kim Clijsters, and she didn't even know what the hell a Kim Clijsters was. "This shouldn't be that tough for me," she thought, and then it all rushed back to her: the gunshots, the gangbangers, the schizophrenic lady, the soiled underwear those nobrain girls left at her locker. "I can do this," she thought. "I've been through worse. My ancestors were in slavery. I could be dying right now and I'm not. I've got to suck it up," she thought.

She won a few points, and then took the second set, and then she saw her daddy clapping. The thing is, she couldn't ever remember him clapping before. Not in any match. Not when she was 10, not when she won the U.S. Open, and not when her older sister, her soulmate of an older sister, won Wimbledon. He would shimmy and dance, of course, and the whole tennis world would want him banned, but on this spring day of 2001, these were genuine claps, anger claps, the claps of a disturbed man. She looked his way again, in the third set, and he was on his cell phone. Who in god's name could he be talking to? businessmen? Not now, Daddy, not here. How could he?

She got to match point, and she was thinking, "Get me out of here, get me out of the worst day of my life." And finally it was over, and she had gutted it out, and, as she climbed into her courtesy car, she was shaking like a leaf. Her daddy tried to tell her what had happened up there in the stands, up there with the beasts, where he says he heard a man say, "N----, if this was 1975, we'd skin you alive." He was shaking now too, and he insinuated that it was his worst day too, his worst day since he heard Martin Luther King Jr. was gone.

And then, as the hours and days passed, it dawned on her that it was the street in her, the Compton in her, the homemade clothes in her that had gotten her through that pitiable afternoon. because a lot of other teenagers would have quit and run for their Kleenex. but it also dawned on her that they hadn't really been booing her; they had been booing her father. booing him because they assumed he fixed the matches between her and her sister, that he concocted their injuries, that they were his glorified robots. And whether it was true or somewhat true or not true, she felt they had no right. They didn't know anything about him, or them, or about her dog that had been murdered or about the incoherent letters sent to the family house. but that didn't matter, because it was obvious now that 19-year-old Serena Williams and her 20-year-old sister, Venus, had a choice to make, consciously or unconsciously. They had to decide whether they could somehow separate from the most ridiculed father in tennis, had to decide where and when to have Richard Williams around. because this booing had to stop.

The hard part is, he got them here. He dreamed them up. The girls know the tale well: He had been watching a blackandwhite Compton TV in the late '70s and someone named Virginia Ruzici had just won 40 grand for winning a tournament and Richard Williams flipped out and said, "Forty grand for that? I need two more daughters."

They know that he tricked their mother into having them. That their mother, who already had three daughters and wanted to be a social worker, didn't desire to be pregnant. That he'd wined and dined her anyway and one night conveniently misplaced her birth control pills and next thing you knew, here came Venus. They know that their mother, Oracene, said, "Never ever again." And that he'd moved her out of Compton and eventually to a belmont Shores beach house-just to butter her up-and the next thing you knew, here came Serena. And they know that he immediately moved them back to Compton-that, to him, Compton was the "best neighborhood ever."

Their memories of Compton are obviously about tennis, but also of other things their father would rattle on about. He wanted them to read and, at bedtime, Venus remembers him reading her The Cat in the Hat and The Wall Street Journal. She remembers the first words he taught her to spell: persona non grata. She had no idea someday that's what she'd become. They remember how when they were naughty, he would try to scare them straight by taking them to jailhouses. The thing is, skid row didn't frighten them. What spooked them was a bag lady they'd seen in downtown L.A. on their way to their daddy's secu rity job. The lady was pushing a shopping cart and spewing gibberish, talking to herself like, "Gonna kill him. No, he gonna kill me. No, gonna kill him." Their father said there was a word for that- schizo-and Serena remembers thinking, "We'd better go to school. We don't want to end up like that."

They remember distributing phone books and being on welfare and their mother having to make most of their clothes at home. Venus remembers walking Serena to school and lending Serena her lunch money. She remembers how Serena would cry when Venus had to leave. And how Venus would remind her they'd get to play tennis that afternoon, that it would be okay.

Of course, they had no idea what their father had gone through to get those courts on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and East Compton Boulevard-the courts where the Crips and bloods loitered and stored their drugs in the windscreens. They didn't know their daddy, as he said later, had to beat up a gangster to secure the courts, that he'd blindsided the guy with a club and that the other gang members said, "Let's get out of here, that ol' man is crazy." The girls didn't know those courts were their father's gift to them.

But the girls do remember hearing gunshots out there one day. They remember being told by their father to hit the deck at the sound of gunfire. They know now they shouldn't have been exposed to such a place, but their daddy says he was preparing them for a cruel world.

They remember entering junior tournaments, and how their daddy put soda advertisements on their pinafore dresses and how he made them promise to smile at all times, even if other girls cheated them on line calls. They remember him always saying hello to the white tennis parents and how the white parents rarely said hello back. They remember him standing on a foot ladder at tournaments-all 6'2" of him-and how he'd videotape their matches and how he refused to allow anyone else to even photograph them. They remember the day a TV crew came to shoot one of Venus' 10yearold finals, and how their dad threatened to take her off the court. How her dad said, "No one makes money off her but me!"

They remember him deciding it was time to find them a tennis academy, and how he flew in a coach named Rick Macci from Florida. They were 10 and 9 at the time, and they remember their dad picking up Macci in the family VW van, and they remember Macci's reaction. They remember how Macci couldn't believe there were months' worth of McDonald's wrappers in that van, how badly the van rattled, how a spring protruding from the pas senger seat nearly harpooned him. Or how their dad said to Macci,"We're taking you to East Compton Country Club," and when they drove up, at 7:30 a.m., there were shirtless men playing basketball and drunks asleep in the grass. And when Richard and the girls stepped out of the van, all the people in the park-as Macci puts it-"parted like the Red Sea." And everyone called their dad King Richard.

They remember how their dad had his tennis ball cart chained to the net post and how Macci thought those tennis balls were so bad they were the kind "you give to a dog as a last resort-no fuzz, no label, no bounce." Macci suggested they use new balls, and their father said, "No, we want them to bend more and run faster. We don't want them to be spoiled. When they get out on the tour, we want them to take someone's eye out."

They remember what Macci told them later, that he didn't think the girls were anything special until Venus asked her father if she could use the bath room and then, the way Macci remembers it, on her way to the restroom, walked on her hands the first 10 steps and then done a backward cartwheel the next 10 feet. Macci's eyes bulged and he said to their father, "Richard, you've got the next female Michael Jordan on your hands." And their father answered, "No, brother man. I've got the next two Michael Jordans on my hands."

And they remember then how an excited Macci took them to Florida and how they were on the verge of turning pro. And how Richard wanted them to play against cheaters, and Richard wanted spectators to hold up noisy boom boxes during their matches. It was their daddy's way of toughening them up. because there'd be a day, sometime, someplace, where they'd need to be ready for a raw, raw situation. Like Indian Wells.

Sounds like his work is done.

So the question is whether they can break away from him as a new Wimbledon approaches. Or whether they even want to, or whether it's possible, or whether they already have.

Actually, they've already moved out of his house-an obvious first step. This was over a year ago, and he'd even urged them to do it. The girls went ahead and opened a joint checking account and built a mansion in palm beach Gardens. Upon completion, in somewhat of a declaration, they'd engraved a stone in the front courtyard: LA MAISON DE SOEURS (the house of sisters). The move was hardest on Serena, who didn't cook much. She'd call her father on the phone, asking if she could dine with him. but that has pretty much stopped now, because so many things have changed at his house, because so many dramas have been played out there.

Richard's house is in unincorporated palm beach, on 40 acres, and their father always liked it because it was remote, and because he had two putting greens, three tennis courts and a golf cart with the following bumper sticker: HORN bROKE, WATCH FOR FINGER. He liked the isolation, liked that suitors came looking for his business. Liked that black businessmen came and called him "Mr. Richard," and that white businessmen came and slapped him on the back. In fact, two white men who were interested in starting a Richard Williams tennis academy stopped by one particularly damp day, and Richard did what few tennis fathers would do: He took off his knit shirt, used the shirt to dry off two chairs and put his shirt back on.

But the more renowned his daughters became, the more tense it had gotten at this house. First, the Williamses began receiving racially threaten ing letters that began, "Dear N---." They tried to hide the letters from the girls, and their father called the FbI. but the FbI wouldn't help, and it created a paranoia on Richard's part. One day, he thought there was a bomb in Venus' porsche. She'd left for a tournament a few days before and Richard thought he remembered her porsche being locked up in the driveway. but on this day he noticed the windows down, the doors unlocked, and he thought maybe a bomb was in there. This time the FbI made it out there, although their K9 did not detect an explosive. but Richard was still suspicious. Not long after that, princess, Serena's Jack Russell, was found paws up in the pond and their father just knew it had been foul play.

It didn't help that Richard and Oracene were having disputes. In February 1997, police records show that Oracene called 911 after her husband brandished a pellet gun. She thought he might kill himself, although she had no idea the gun was unloaded, and the police simply gave her a domestic violence legal rights packet and left. Then, in February 1999, Oracene-whose nick name is Brandi-found herself in a hospital, accompanied by her two tennis daughters. Police reports state she'd suffered three broken ribs and that medical personnel suspected battery. A police report says brandi would say only that she had been injured by someone, and that Venus and Serena said their mother did not wish to say anything more. but the report states that after further questioning, brandi told police, "I know you know what happened, but I am fearful for my daughters' careers."

At that point, the author of the police report suspected Richard or another family member, but charges were never filed against him or anyone else. And Richard says he has an alibi, that he was giving a speech at a Chicago university on the night of the incident-though he won't say which school. When asked whether he has battered his wife, he says, "No, you've got to see this family to believe it. This family is so close, so unique. It's just amazing the things that come out about me."

Specifically, Richard says, he's been accused of impregnating several women-"I just tell them to get their swab tests and contact my lawyer," he says-and all of this did harm to his marriage. And so Brandi moved away to another of their homes, in Jupiter, Fla., and began relishing her time on the road with Venus and Serena. As long as Richard wasn't there.

At first, Richard had been on the road with them, although it sickened him the way the girls were being ostracized. At their first Wimbledon together, in 1998, several female players left soiled underwear by the sisters' lockers, along with dirty sneaker insoles. As if they did not feel unwanted enough, witnesses say Martina Hingis-whom Venus would later nickname "Little Martin"-would stare at them from around locker room corners. It was no wonder that Venus and Serena would practice as early as 7 a.m. at these tournaments and get the hell out, something they still do. There was no reason to fraternize.

Richard wanted out too. He thought he could be earning more money at home, brainstorming. At home, he sold ad space on a "Venus and Serena bus" for $2 millionplus. He also dreamed up a purified water drink called SerVen Rich, and he says he invented a product to take on Viagra. ("Mine costs only $1.75. And half a bottle will take you through almost two nights.") but on the tour, he found him self bored, talking mostly to tournament janitors and gardeners and maids. "These are my people," he says. He'd eat at burger King "because I don't have to tip," and his lodging of choice was often a Motel 6. While at the U.S. Open, he'd stand outside his Manhattan hotel, talking to the cab drivers or the doormen. He told his girls, "You need to find a new coach, I don't want to be here."

He cut back on his traveling and said he'd visit only about five tournaments a year. So Venus and Serena-and their mother-began to separate from him and branch out. Venus emerged as the more serious daughter; nothing seems to rattle her. When Richard's mother died of a heart attack, Venus was the only one brave enough to tell him. On her own, she learned to speak Italian fluently and implores her drivers to drop her at bookstores. She has a rare confidence and decided to pursue fashion at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She took online English courses, and her days are full. She is sometimes seen out on the road with her bodyguards-the gossip is that her first kiss was with one of them-but it was typical Venus for her to scold Shaquille O'Neal for insinuating he'd slept with her. She is proud, and she can be a hermit.

Serena, though, is what her mother calls "my wild child." Once, after a Grand Slam loss, Serena was heard to say, "I'm going to watch me some men," although she says now, "I'm not too outgoing." The Redskins' LaVar Arrington invited her to a game as his guest, and Serena, asked about their relation ship, laughs and says, "I know nothing." She is an extrovert who owns a pit bull named Bambi and who, when she hears people insinuate her matches with Venus are fixed, responds with, "It's just player-hatin'." Her own mother says, "Some of the things Serena says, she's a little more open, like her dad. Serena has begun finding her own personality, but she and Venus are still close. I think they've made a pact. If they get married, they have to let their husbands know they're going to talk to each other no matter what."

They had more freedom with their mother. They loved that brandi wore a nose ring, and if they'd lose and were depressed, brandi would often buy them new dogs. Serena, who at one time wanted to be a veterinarian, particularly enjoyed that, although her luck with dogs has been poor. One of the family dogs, pete (named after Sampras), had been killed by some larger dogs and Serena's dog Jackie, another Jack Russell, nearly died when it bit into a cord and was electrocuted. So brandi would just bring in a new litter.

The three of them talked about everything. For instance, two years ago, family friends would urge brandi to tell the girls to remove the beads in their hair, which would crackle and pop and fall out during matches. "I agree," brandi would say, "but Richard wants to keep them." Yet she and the girls discussed it, and with Avon and Doublemint gum pursuing them as endorsers, the girls did decide to phase the beads out. Venus began wearing hair extensions, and they each colored their hair a shade of auburn, and Richard's opinion on the subject just didn't matter any longer.

Even though they were blossoming under brandi, their mother was not the parent who could best help them deal with the player-hatin'. At tournaments, Brandi-not much of a tennis player-would hire a hitter and sit courtside and say, "If you don't start moving your feet Venus, I'm leaving." That would be the extent of her coaching. Venus had to tell a disbelieving media, "My mom is my coach, deal with it." Yet somehow the girls were winning these tournaments, even with mediocre game plans and erratic serves. But the reason they began winning the Grand Slams, too, is that they'd call him in, call in their chainsmoking father. They'd call him in to rescue them at the big events, because he could take the media glare off of them, could tell the media he intended to buy Rockefeller Center. This way, the girls were free just to play tennis.

And if they lost or were slumping, all the girls would need was an hour on the court with him back home, at the plantation. He'd feed them balls and put up his homemade signs, such as, "Venus, when you fail, you fail alone" and "Serena, you must learn to listen."Then they'd be terrors again.

So what the girls learned is this: Richard had used them early in their lives, and now maybe they could use him back. Maybe it wasn't so bright to break away from him entirely. And that's why, last year at Wimbledon, brandi left London in mid-tournament and their chainsmoking father flew in. because Venus wanted him there; just like Serena wanted him there later at Indian Wells. They want him in that box seat; they need him in that box seat.

So, people don't trust the girls now, because people don't trust their father. The French Open and Wimbledon are coming up, and if the girls play each other, the public will assume their father has fixed their match. And people will use Santa Monica, 1990, as Exhibit A. It was there, at a tournament called the Dudley Cup, that Richard Williams was accused of concocting his first injury. Venus was an undefeated 10yearold at the time, and Muguette Ahn, a 9yearold Korean American, was winning the first set by lobbing high to her backhand. Witnesses say Richard, who couldn't fathom Venus losing, loped to the fence and said, "Venus! Veenus! You're playing terrible, Venus. Is it your knee that's hurting? It must be your knee. I want you to walk off the court, Venus. Why don't we go to the beach, Venus? put your racket in your bag and tell the umpire you quit. Tell him, 'So long.' Thank you, Venus."

And people will use last year's Wimbledon as Exhibit b. They will say that Serena was playing her best tennis until she faced Venus in the semifinals. That she had only 14 unforced errors in her quar terfinal victory and that all of a sudden she had a ridiculous 49 unforced errors against Venus. And they will say it was Richard's doing, that he wanted Venus, not Serena, to be the first black woman to win Wimbledon in the Open era.

Serena: "I tanked Wimbledon? That's ridiculous. I would've gone to the Olympic singles tournament if I'd won that match. So, I was trying. It'd have been ridiculous to do it on purpose. How am I sup posed to know if I'll even be alive for the next Olympics? I actually prefer to play Venus. Well, okay, maybe someone easier. but, eventually, I'll always have to play her."

Richard: "Those kids would not have that type of love for me if I was telling one to lose and one to win. That would hurt your relationship with your child forever ... Of course, they hate playing each other. McEnroe said the same thing about playing his brother. The Maleeva sisters said the same. It's not just Venus and Serena, but you hear about them because they sell out stadiums."

Venus: "A fix? I won't even dignify that."

But then the sisters drew each other again at Indian Wells this March, and Indian Wells is where Venus defaulted with a knee injury minutes before the match. And Indian Wells is where Serena was cursed and booed the next day, where her father was on his cell phone during the match-dictating his new book.