Two sisters who've put a spin on the buttoned-up game of tennis talk about passion, fashion, family, coping with criticism (warning to all opponents: sniping just makes them more ferocious).They're young, they're powerful, and they've got bodies of steel. I met them once years ago; now, for the first time since they've risen to the apex of their sport, I sit across from two of the most famous sisters in the world, Venus and Serena Williams.
Before Venus and Serena, now 22 and 21, were even born, their father, Richard, decided to turn them into pros because he'd once seen a tennis player receive a check for $30,000. What he didn't know was how to play tennis. So using instructional videos, Richard—who back then owned a security agency—taught both himself and his wife, Oracene, a nurse, how to master the game. (They have three other daughters—Yetunde, Isha, and Lyndrea—all older than Venus and Serena but none professional tennis players.) Even when the girls were just tots—they began to play at the age of 4—they were serving up passion in the conservative sport. After they turned pro at 14, they traded those stodgy tennis whites for bold designs. Last August at the U.S. Open, Serena made headlines all over the world when she stepped out wearing a short black catsuit by Puma, one of many companies she's scored endorsement deals with. For her part, Venus had already signed a $40 million contract with Reebok, which ranks among the highest endorsement fees paid to a female athlete.
The Williams sisters haven't been without their detractors. Some have criticized them as arrogant. Others have said they lack fire when they compete with each other in the finals. And their father has taken heat for what some call peculiar behavior. (When Richard jumped up and down after Venus's 2000 Wimbledon win, the press reported that he'd done a strange "victory dance.") But nothing has stopped the Williams power set from swinging on with their game. And whatever anyone may think of Richard, one truth is tough to refute: When it came to his girls' future, he called it right. Venus and Serena were just 13 and 12 when Richard declared they would one day be the top two tennis players in the world.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Venus and Serena Williams
Note: This interview appeared in the March 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Serena, people are still talking about that catsuit you wore to the U.S. Open. Did you expect it to get so much attention?
Serena: I knew it was different, but I didn't expect it to make such a big hit as it did.
Venus: A hairdresser at a salon in New York told me that Serena's catsuit was making gay men turn straight! People couldn't get enough of it.
Oprah: It was pretty fierce! Do you always pay a lot of attention to what you'll wear in the finals?
Venus: Definitely. If I don't wear something I feel confident in, I don't play as well.
Oprah: What message are you trying to communicate with your bold outfits?
Venus: Along with our best game, we want to bring our personalities onto the court. How we dress says a lot about how we feel and who we are.
Oprah: Venus, don't you design your own line of clothing for Wilsons Leather?
Venus: That's my other job. Serena and I went to fashion design school, so we're not just walking around saying, "We want to be fashion girls." We're actually educated in the matter.
Oprah: You're quite educated, period. I thought it was classy of you to accept your award in French at the French Open.
Venus: Thank you.
Serena: When we were younger, we watched a tennis player do the same after winning the French Open. Venus and I decided that when we got there, we'd also be able to speak French.
Oprah: Venus, I know you've started an interior design business called V Starr Interiors.
Venus: My mom has been worried about me because I've been working overtime to get the company going—I have to work hard if I want it to be successful. The first couple of months were tough, but now I finally have some help.
Oprah: Other players have called you arrogant for having interests outside of tennis. Where do you find the time?
Venus: To stay interested in tennis, I have to mix it up with other things.
Serena: We get bored quickly. A lot of players have a myopic view, but we know tennis can last only so long. After their careers, a lot of stars say, "What should I do now?" Then they realize there's no money left. We've always had something to fall back on.
Venus: One of our biggest fears is ending up having to struggle and mop floors.
Oprah: I don't think that will happen to you. Serena, you appeared in an episode of the ABC sitcom My Wife and Kids. Do you want to pursue acting?
Serena: Definitely—but with my training schedule, it's difficult to get parts. I've always enjoyed acting. When we were younger, my sisters and I would put on plays for our parents.
Venus: Serena was always the princess, and I was the warrior.
Oprah: How much time do you get off each year?
Serena: We play tennis from January to November.
Oprah: What was your proudest moment away from the court?
Serena: Venus's was getting a 3.9 GPA in school a couple of years ago.
Venus: I didn't get the 4.0 because there was one class I was never on time for.
Serena: She was playing tennis and traveling, so it was tough.
Oprah: With such a busy schedule, is anybody dating anybody?
Venus: [Turns to her sister, laughing.] Is anybody dating anybody, Serena?
Serena: I'm very single! I'm just focusing on tennis right now. Maybe some people can focus on two things at once, but I can't.
Oprah: Are men intimidated by you?
Serena: I don't think so. I'm always open for dinner and a movie. But because we travel so much, a serious relationship might be difficult right now.
Oprah: Venus, I notice you're wearing a ring. Does it mean anything?
Venus: It was a gift. I've given a lot of my other rings to my grandmother, but I decided to keep this one.
Oprah: Is that all you're going to tell me?
Venus: Yes! [Laughter.]
Oprah: I can appreciate that—I tried, but you wouldn't give it up! Did you know there's a rumor that you're married?
Venus: [Gasps.] What? Will you please tell me who I'm married to? Is he handsome?
Oprah: He's tall.
Venus: Oh, is he? Those rumors get out there every so often. This is not about me!
Oprah: Okay. Getting back to tennis, how do you prepare for competition?
Venus: Tennis is mostly mental. Of course, you must have a lot of physical skill, but you can't play tennis well and not be a good thinker. You win or lose the match before you even go out there. You also win with your reputation and how you played the day before. Serena and I have a history of winning, and we hope that continues.
Oprah: When the two top-ranked women in tennis step onto the court, isn't that already a head trip for the opponent?
Venus: I think so. My goal is always the same: to keep the other player from ever scoring a point. That doesn't always happen, but that's what I try for.
Oprah: Years ago, your father predicted you'd become the top two players in the world. Did you have that same vision for yourselves?
Serena: One day my dad just said to each of us, "Go ahead—pick a tournament you want to win."
Venus: I said Wimbledon.
Serena: I said Wimbledon, too, and he demanded that I pick another tournament.
Oprah: Serena, I read that you always tried to be Venus when you were younger.
Serena: There were two Venus Williamses in our family—it was crazy.
Oprah: Wouldn't you even order whatever Venus ordered at a restaurant?
Serena: Yes. My parents would make me order first, but once she ordered, I'd change my mind. It was tough for me to stop being Venus and become the person I am.
Oprah: When did that happen?
Serena: Well, maybe just two years ago! [Laughter.]
Venus: Now that she's 21.
Serena: One day I just said to myself, I'm not Venus. I'm Serena.
Oprah: I know you're laughing, but it's a serious thing to have followed in someone's footsteps, and then to realize her shoes don't fit you.
Serena: I still copy Venus in many ways, but it's not as bad. I sound like I've been through some kind of 12-step program.
Oprah: How does playing against your sister compare with competing against others?
Venus: There sure is a difference because I always want the best for Serena. As the older sister who took care of her, I still look out for Serena on the court—yet I'm trying to get the win myself. We're definitely in a strange situation, one that no other player has been in. The best part is that right now we're the best at what we do.
Oprah: Preparing for the finals at Wimbledon, do you think about going in and slamming each other?
Serena: No, I just think about what I'm going to do on the court, technique-wise. I don't consider the person I'm playing, especially that far into the tournament.
Oprah: So it's about the game, not the person.
Serena: Yes. After all those years of practice, that is your moment, so you have to take it.
Oprah: Do you feel the same way, Venus?
Venus: Sure. If I'm going out to play Serena, I've got my game plan, and I know what I have to do to be successful.
Oprah: Some have said there's no passion when you two play each other.
Serena: Obviously, I want to win, and I'm sure my sister does, too. Venus, don't you want to win?
Venus: Yes! I don't have anything to say if someone believes we aren't passionate enough. If we aren't, then they should come out and show us how to do it.
Serena: When we were younger, it was difficult for me to play Venus because she'd always beat me so badly. I had to improve just so I could stay in the game. Even now when we practice together, I have to watch out because she'll just blow me off the court.
Oprah: But you're ranked number one.
Serena: Now I am!
Oprah: Venus, as the big sister, is part of your goal to take away that ranking?
Venus: As Venus the tennis player, my goal is to be the best at what I do. Honestly, Serena was just unbelievable in 2002. She was just too good.
Oprah: When you're not on the road, don't you two share a nine-bedroom estate with your dogs?
Venus: Yes—a pit bull and a Yorkie.
Oprah: Does either of you cook? When I was single, my fridge was always empty—I ate a lot of Raisin Bran for dinner.
Serena: Venus cooks more than I do because she still looks out for me. Once, when we were younger, I ran out of lunch money, and we were both hungry. Venus said, "Serena, you take my money—you go eat." And it was fried chicken day at school! I think she had the peanut butter and jelly. Sorry, Venus.
Oprah: That shows just how strong your bond is. What word best characterizes your relationship?
Venus: I'd use words like strong and close. I hate seeing children argue with their parents and siblings on TV. That sends the message that you're not supposed to get along. You shouldn't slam the door and run up to your room. We still tease our mom because she didn't allow us not to get along.
Oprah: Does coming from such a strong family help you handle the criticism that comes with living in the public eye?
Venus: When anyone is critical of what I do, I'm just motivated by it. If someone says we're not good enough, then we just do better. If another tennis player says something negative, I say, "That girl will never beat me." We feed off the criticism.
Oprah: I love that. I've never once heard you make negative statements about other players.
Venus: And you won't. I don't have anything against anyone. When I walk onto the court, I'm there to play tennis and nothing else. Serena and I have no issues with anyone.
Serena: We're enjoying ourselves, and there's no time for anything else. You can't just be catty about everything.
Oprah: Do you even care what other people think of you?
Serena: I really don't—as long as my family knows who I am. And I know that a lie can't live forever. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "How long? Not long!" Most of the lies people tell about us are eventually washed away, so they don't bother me.
Oprah: Aren't you amazed at the untruths that people can write about you?
Serena: That's why we don't read the articles—I just look at the pictures. The negativity can really bring you down.
Venus: I avoid the hype. When I watch tennis on TV, I hit mute. I don't want to be bothered with the junk.
Oprah: Venus, was there ever a time when you cared what people thought?
Oprah: That's mighty—to be raised female and not have that concern.
Serena: My mom raised us to be strong women. We were taught that things like peer pressure didn't exist for us.
Oprah: With all that's been said and written, is there one thing people most often misunderstand about you?
Serena: Some people say we're mean or stuck-up. But they don't know us. We're really nice—and Venus is very funny!
Venus: Being famous has taught us not to make presumptions about others.
Oprah: I like what your father said: We don't see Bill Gates out there socializing with everybody. Tennis is serious business.
Serena: It's our job.
Venus: Men aren't criticized if they aren't out there having dinner and socializing. I remember another player once saying "Venus didn't say hi to me." She didn't say hi, either. It's a two-way street.
Oprah: I've got you. Your father has received some criticism of his own. Are you ever embarrassed by your dad?
Venus: No—nothing embarrasses us.
Oprah: Even when he did the victory dance?
Venus: It wasn't a dance—people just wrote that. He jumped up and down. I'm proud of my dad. He is an unbelievable visionary—and I think Serena and I understood that even when we were small.
Serena: Our father doesn't get enough credit. He showed us how to serve—and we have the biggest serves in women's tennis.
Oprah: Yes, and the fact that your dad taught himself how to play and then coached you is just amazing.
Serena: He stayed up many nights watching films so he could teach us. He taught our mom, and then they taught us.
Oprah: Your father has said that nobody ever talks about all the years of struggle it took to get you here.
Serena: It's a lot of work. It doesn't happen miraculously.
Oprah: And when you're 5 and 6, you don't always want to be doing all that work, right?
Serena: Right. Fortunately, we listened to our parents, which I think is one reason we're blessed. We never went out and got crazy. We were brought up as Jehovah's Witnesses, so we have a strong spiritual background.
Oprah: We all know what kind of tennis players you are, but what kind of women do you aspire to be?
Venus: I want to be honest. I've never had a reason to lie, and I want to keep it that way. I want to be a good example for my family and of my religion. I also want to be proud of who I am and to know exactly what I want. No one can tell me what to do—well, no one except my mother.
Oprah: And you, Serena?
Serena: I want to be a giving woman and just a nice person in general. Mostly, I'd like to be a spiritual person.
Oprah: What does spiritual mean to you?
Venus: For me it means sticking to my religion.
Oprah: And being connected to the essence of who you are?
Venus: Yes. Even after you become a doctor, you have to continue studying. The same is true with the Bible. You study and learn—and then you don't just give it up and put it in the cupboard. You keep reading every day, and you become stronger as you make it part of your life. You do your personal best, and God reads the heart.
Oprah: Whoo—that's big! You've been quoted as saying that fame and money are great, but they don't bring you happiness. What does?
Venus: My family. Laughter. Being able to decide what I want to do. My health.
Oprah: Do you worry about your health from January to November?
Venus: If I get sick, I just have to pull out. The tournament will still be there after I retire. But it's up to me to care of myself.
Oprah: Do your strong bodies come just from playing tennis?
Venus: It might not seem fair, but we're just like this. The tennis does supplement it, but ever since Serena was small, she was—
Oprah: Built! It must be in the genes. Do you work out off the court?
Serena: We go to the gym to stay ahead.
Venus: And to stay uninjured.
Serena: Yes—but we don't lift lots of weights. We mostly use those rubber exercise bands.
Oprah: Do you have a special diet?
Venus: No. We love McDonald's.
Oprah: What will you do after tennis?
Venus: We've been training and playing full-time since we were 18 and 19. So after tennis, we'll be excited to see what it's like to have more free time.
Oprah: Do you feel like you're on top of the world right now?
Serena: Even with what we've accomplished, there's still so much more to do outside tennis.
Venus: We know what we have now won't last forever, so we're just having fun with it while we can.
Oprah: This has been great. I appreciate who you are and what you stand for. It makes me want to work out a little harder today—and to skip that meatloaf!
Serena: Thanks so much for having us.
Venus: Yes, thank you, Oprah!