Venus and Serena Williams are two of the best-known names in tennis. Yet, they came from humble beginnings and have struggled through some very difficult moments in their personal and professional lives. These world-class athletes may enjoy large paychecks and nice vacations, but they’ve also endured life-threatening health conditions, discrimination, and the horrible murder of a family member.
They Grew Up In Crime-Ridden Compton, California
Venus and Serena Williams’ parents are Oracene Price and Richard Williams. They have several half-sisters and half-brothers. The family moved to Compton when Venus and Serena were quite young. Serena was just three-years-old when she picked up her racket, and her sister wasn’t much older.
The pair was homeschooled by their father. During the ’80s when the girls were in the midst of their childhood, Compton was rife with gang violence, mostly due to gang activity from the Bloods and the Crips. Homicides peaked in the working-class city in the following decade, and most murders were gun related.
Their Parents’ Relationship Crumbled, And They Divorced
Oracene Price married Richard Williams following the death of her first husband, Yusef Rasheed. She had three daughters from her first marriage. While working as a nurse, she met Williams, and they wed in 1980 after Venus was born. It was also Williams’ second marriage. He had three daughters and three sons before divorcing his first wife, Betty Johnson, in 1973.
Richard and Oracene moved to Compton shortly after their wedding. The pair stayed together for two decades, but by 2000 they were no longer living together. Citing irreconcilable differences, the couple divorced in 2002. Oracene then started using her maiden name again.
Their Father Was Accused Of Rigging A Wimbledon Match Between The Sisters
Venus and Serena competed against each other at Wimbledon in 2000, and there were rumors that their father rigged the match because Serena had previously won the U.S. Open and he allegedly wanted both of his daughters to be champions. When John McEnroe commented, “Serena may not be allowed to win. Richard may have something to say about this,” it fueled the fire.
Serena, who was 18, was the favorite, and Venus, 20, was just getting back into form after coping with tendonitis. Yet, Serena lost and Venus won. The family’s lawyer later said: “None of these allegations is worth responding to. The Williams’ are celebrities and this comes with the territory. None of this is true.”
They Faced A Judgmental Crowd In Indian Wells, So They Skipped The Tournament The Next Year
In 2002, Venus and Serena dropped out of the Masters tournament in Indian Wells, California, one of the top non-Grand-Slam events on the tour. The pair felt they were unfairly targeted at the tournament the previous year. Before the sisters were set to go head-to-head in a 2001 semifinal, a fellow player made a comment about their father picking who should win.
Just before the game was set to start, Venus pulled out of the match due to an injury. The crowd, unhappy with the development, booed. Serena was also booed when she was playing in the finals. But she shrugged it off and was able to win. The family believed there were other reasons for the booing, however.
The Family Believed The Boos From The Spectators Were Racially Motivated
During an interview with USA Today, Richard Williams explained: “When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me [the ‘N’ word]. One guy said, ‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.’ That’s when I stopped and walked toward that way. Then I realized that (my) best bet was to handle the situation non-violently. I had trouble holding back tears. I think Indian Wells disgraced America.”
Williams continued to deny that he prompted his daughters to lose matches against one another. Venus commented, “This country has a history of treating minorities badly, and that’s sad because it is a country of promise.”
The Pair Boycotted Indian Wells For 13 Years
The Williams family was so disgusted by their treatment at Indian Wells that they boycotted the tournament for 13 years. When Serena decided to return to the event, she submitted a moving essay for Time magazine. She wrote: “The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair.
“In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid…Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away. There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should’ve returned years ago. I understand both perspectives very well and wrestled with them for a long time.”
Injuries Sidelined Both Sisters In 2002 & 2003
Serena reached the number-one ranking for the first time on July 8, 2002. She beat Venus to win a Grand Slam singles title without dropping a set during Wimbledon. Unfortunately, a nagging knee injury was becoming problematic. And if an athlete doesn’t promptly address a medical issue, it can be career ending.
In August, Serena had surgery on the quadriceps tendon. She was expected to take at most a two-month break, but her hiatus lasted eight months. Meanwhile, Venus had suffered from a season-ending abdominal injury in 2003. As a result, the sisters did not compete at the U.S. Open that year.
Serena’s Jumpsuit Was Banned From The French Open
Serena Williams made waves when she appeared at the 2018 French Open wearing a skin-tight black bodysuit with a fierce red sash – a huge departure from the light-colored dresses and skirts favored by many players. The outfit was symbolic for Williams, who said she wore it for “all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce, in [the] middle of everything. That’s what this represents.”
But in August, it was announced that the French Open would be tightening its dress code and that her outfit is not welcome back in 2019. President Bernard Giudicelli said, “Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted,” without adding any specific details why. “You have to respect the game and the place.”
Their Oldest Sister Was Killed In A Drive-By Shooting In Compton
A week after the 2003 U.S. Open, Venus and Serena’s half-sister Yetunde Price was killed in a drive-by shooting. Price, 31, was a registered nurse, beauty salon owner, and a single mother of three young kids. The shooting took place about one mile from the tennis court where the Williams girls practiced as children.
In 2006, gang member Robert Maxfield pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Serena made a statement in the courtroom: “This was unfair to our family, and our family has always been positive and we always try to help people.”
Years Later They Opened A Resource Center To Honor Their Sister’s Memory
In 2016, Venus and Serena opened the Yetunde Price Resource Center in Compton to assist people who are the victims of violence and other types of trauma. The center was endowed by the Williams Sisters Fund. Serena told the Los Angeles Times: “We definitely wanted to honor our sister’s memory because she was a great sister, she was our oldest sister and obviously she meant a lot to us.”
She added, “We just felt like people that didn’t have that opportunity to fall back on, what could they do? And that’s kind of how this resource center came about.”
Multiple Injuries, Including A Pulmonary Embolism, Sunk Serena Into A Deep Depression
2010 and 2011 were difficult years for Serena. In July 2010, she cut her foot after stepping on broken glass in a restaurant and need two surgeries to heal. She was unable to compete for the rest of the year. In February 2011, she was preparing to get back on the court when she had a pulmonary embolism. This was exacerbated by a hematoma in her stomach that required surgery.
While recovering, her ranking dropped to 11, and Serena was miserable. “Especially when I had that second surgery, I was definitely depressed. I cried all the time. I was miserable to be around,” she told USA Today.
When Serena Finally Got Back On The Court, She Lost Several Matches
Serena returned to the court in March 2011. She lost to Vera Zvonareva in Eastbourne. At Wimbledon, she was the defending champion but lost to Marion Bartoli, and her ranking dropped to 169. Still, she was happy to be playing again — something she feared she wouldn’t be able to do again.
She won a few titles in Stanford and Toronto but had to drop out of the Western & Southern Open after hurting her toe. When she lost the US Open to Samantha Stosur, Serena verbally attacked the chair umpire. It was her last match of the year, and she wound up with a No. 12 ranking.
Venus Was Diagnosed With An Autoimmune Disease
In 2011, Venus dropped out of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati because she was ill. She competed at the US Open but withdrew after the second round because she had been diagnosed with Sjögrens Syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease. The disease causes fatigue and muscle and joint pain.
For the first time ever, Venus didn’t make the quarterfinals or better in a season’s Grand Slam tournaments. Her ranking dropped to 105. By 2012, it was 137. She played exhibition matches the rest of the year. Venus battled her condition by making changes to her training and following a vegan diet.
Venus Says Her Journey Has Made Her Stronger
In 2016, Venus was upbeat about her recovery and her career. She told the media at Wimbledon: “I don’t have any regrets about anything that’s taken place in between. It’s been a journey, but it’s made me stronger. I wouldn’t wish it any other way. It’s easy to be afraid.”
“I never thought what I might have been able to achieve if I hadn’t been ill. It could have been different, but it wasn’t.” At Wimbledon, Venus advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time in six years. She also recently revealed she has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Their Dad Had A Stroke In 2016 While The Women Played (& Won) At Wimbledon
In 2015, Richard Williams was reportedly struggling with some health issues. He did not attend Wimbledon in 2016 and had a stroke during the second week of the competition. Yet, the family decided to keep the matter private until the tournament was over. Serena won the singles title, and she and Venus won the doubles.
Williams required speech therapy, psychological therapy and physical therapy following the stroke. His wife told the media: “I’m trying to get him under control and relaxed so that when we come back from out of town we could try to get that going. But he doesn’t wish to be bothered with anybody.”
In 2017, Venus Was Involved In A Fatal Car Crash & Sued For Wrongful Death
Venus was driving her SUV in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, when she crashed into another car in an intersection on June 9, 2017. The 78-year-old man in the other vehicle died, and another person was injured. Initially, police found Venus at fault. They later looked at surveillance video and determined that she was not responsible for the crash.
Venus was named in a wrongful death lawsuit, but authorities found that the unidentified driver of a third vehicle had cut off Serena and was the one who was responsible for the accident. Even though she was cleared of wrongdoing, Venus was devastated and heartbroken by the incident.
Serena Had To Undergo An Emergency C-Section
Serena gave birth to her first child, daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian, on Sept. 1, 2017. But as sometimes happens during delivery, things didn’t go as planned. She was required to have an emergency cesarean section. During labor, Serena experienced another pulmonary embolism (PE), which are blood clots in her lungs.
She had a difficult time breathing, and her heart rate plummeted. The c-section went well, but she had to deal with other health issues following her daughter’s birth. The medical team initially ignored Serena’s gut feeling that she was experiencing another PE. She finally convinced them to take her symptoms seriously.
Serena Required Additional Surgeries Following Her Daughter’s Birth & Nearly Died
The PE caused Serena to cough so hard that she popped open the stitches that were used on her c-section wounds. When doctors examined her in the operating room, they discovered a large hematoma on her abdomen that was the result of the hemorrhaging in the area of her c-section scars.
She required a third surgery so doctors could insert a filter into one of her veins. She finally returned home a week later. However, she was bedridden for six weeks. Her husband, Alexis Ohanian, later told Vogue: “Consider for a moment that your body is one of the greatest things on this planet, and you’re trapped in it.”
Being A Mom Was A Struggle For Serena
A new mom experiences all kinds of emotions after giving birth. Many aren’t prepared. “Sometimes I get really down and feel like, man, I can’t do this,” Williams told Vogue. “It’s that same negative attitude I have on the court sometimes. I guess that’s just who I am. No one talks about the low moments — the pressure you feel, the incredible letdown every time you hear the baby cry.”
She added, “I’ve broken down I don’t know how many times. Or I’ll get angry about the crying, then sad about being angry, and then guilty, like, ‘Why do I feel so sad when I have a beautiful baby?’ The emotions are insane.”
Serena Was No. 1 When She Left Tennis To Have A Baby & Upon Return She Was 453
When Serena took a break from tennis to have a child, she was ranked No. 1 in the world. More than a year later, she returned to the sport, but French Open organizers gave her a ranking of 453. Officials establish the ranking of the women’s seeds based on the Women’s Tennis Associations’ ranking.
Many believed Serena was being punished for having a baby and that the rules should have been altered to accommodate top-ranking women like Serena. Other female tennis stars agreed that there should be a rule change. Simona Halep commented: “It’s normal to give birth. It’s normal to have protected ranking. … It’s more than tennis.”
Serena Lost At Wimbledon & Felt She Was Being Drug Tested More Frequently Than Others
In July 2018, Serena commented on social media that she was being unfairly targeted when it came to random drug testing. “Out of all the players it’s been proven I’m the one getting tested the most,” the 23-time Grand Slam champion tweeted. “Discrimination? I think so. At least I’ll be keeping the sport clean.”
Serena doesn’t mind adhering to the rules of the drug tests, but she wants everyone tested equally. She added, “But I’m ready to do whatever it takes to have a clean sport so bring it on. I’m excited.” The 36-year-old had recently lost at Wimbledon to Germany’s Angelique Kerber.
“The Real World Isn’t Instagram”
After having her baby, Serena Williams struggled to get back to physical best. Of course, every mom goes through this, but it seemed that Serena was getting a lot of slack for it.
She told the press: “I think society puts it out there that you’ll just kind of snap back and that’s just a myth. I feel like it’s important for women to know that it doesn’t happen like that in the Instagram world. But in the real world, it takes a while for your body to come back. Especially after a C-section, I think it takes a little bit longer.”
“This Is My Job And This Is What I Do”
During the fourth round of the 2018 US Open, Serena Williams screamed a “Come On!” that reverberated through the stands.
Of the moment, Williams told the press: “It was a ‘Serena scream.’ I don’t try to do it. It just comes out, and it’s just emotions and just – you’re out there. This is my job and this is what I do. This is how I earn a living. I’m going to do the best I can. Winning a big game and a very important game and a really tight game, I think it was just a relief.”
Serena Supported Colin Kaepernick’s Nike Ad
Former NFL player Colin Kaepernick was both praised and criticized for his kneeling during the national anthem, so when Nike chose him as one of the faces for their new ad campaign, people were up in arms.
However, fellow athletes commended both Kaepernick and Nike for the decision. Serena Williams, who also has a contract with Nike, was one of the supporters. After the ad came out, she tweeted a pic of her own Nike ad saying, “Especially proud to be part of the Nike family today.” Many people don’t agree with Nike, but Williams had a lot to say in their defense as you’ll see next.
Serena Says It’s “Freedom Of Choice”
Serena Williams was competing at the 2018 US Open at the time that Kaepernick’s Nike ad debuted. She was asked what she thought of the controversy it caused.
Williams told the press, “[He’s] done a lot for the African American community, and it’s cost him a lot. It’s sad. But he continues to do the best that he can to support. Having a huge company back him, you know, could be a controversial reason for this company, but they’re not afraid.” When asked if athletes are obligated to take up social causes, Williams said it’s their choice: “I think that’s one great thing God gave us, is the freedom of choice.”
Venus Has Accepted Sjögren’s As A Challenge
Despite losing to her sister at the 2018 US Open, Venus Williams is still looking forward to future matches. Her Sjögren’s Syndrome is not going to slow her down.
Venus told People, “It’s obviously something that you learn to live with the best you can. I think it’s about living life on your own terms and looking at it as a challenge, not as the end at all… I try to take care of myself and take rest and focus on what I eat and obviously getting the best medical care I can.”
Serena Was Urged To Get It Together
You know that Serena Williams went through a lot following her sisters death. On top of her grief, Serena suffered a myriad of health problems and depression, which led her to step away from tennis. She began appearing on TV and at movie premieres, but her fans wanted her back on the court.
Tennis legend Chris Evert wrote an open letter to Serena imploring her to recommit to tennis. He told ESPN, “I always thought she could be the greatest of all time. But when I wrote that letter, I didn’t think she was taking it as seriously as she could… I didn’t want her to have regrets.”
She Needed To Go Back To Her Roots
By 2007, Serena Williams was ranked 81 and was determined to win, beating Maria Sharapova 6-2 in the finals of the Australian Open. This change in mindset was aided by a trip to Africa that she took for charity appearances.
Her mother told ESPN, “Going to Africa changed her life. She came back a totally different person. She fell in love with Africa. That helped her to refocus on her life and her career. Seeing where she came from, how we got to where we are now, seeing the ports where they shipped us off and the life of our people, that really changed her attitude about being a black woman.”
She Can’t Keep It In All The Time
Striving to maintain her status as the best isn’t always easy for Serena Williams. There was a time when she absolutely lost it on the court over her frustrations during a match.
At the 2009 US Open, Serena earned a warning for racket abuse after she threw her racket to the ground from losing the first set 6-4. Later, she was called out for a foot fault and threatened the lineswoman by saying, “I swear to God I’m [expletive] going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat.” Of course, something like that was not without consequences.
She Was Charged With A Hefty Fine
Serena Williams’s outburst at the 2009 US Open earned her a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Things didn’t end there, however. Three months later, she was not only placed on a two-year probation, but she was also fined $82,500 – the largest fine ever against a professional tennis player at the time.
People told Serena she needed to apologize, but according to her sister Isha, “We’ve all said and done things we’re not proud of because we’re not perfect. But she didn’t have the ability to be human… What we said was, ‘Obviously it was a mistake; you owe the umpire an apology, but that’s it.”
Serena’s Tempers Flare At 2018 U.S. Open
Those weren’t the only times Serena Williams yelled at the umpires. At the 2018 U.S. Open, Williams found herself in yet another controversial match. In the second game of the second set, umpire Carlos Ramos issued a code violation warning after seeing Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, making hand signals.
Though it was just a warning, Williams took it as an insult to her character. Williams threw her racket at the ground, earning a point penalty, and approached the net. She reportedly told Ramos, “I have never cheated in my live, I have a daughter and I stand what’s right for her.”
Her Coach Admitted To What He Was Doing
For what it’s worth, Mouratoglou did admit in a later TV interview that he was “illegally coaching,” which isn’t uncommon at big time tennis tournaments. He also said despite his admission, that didn’t mean Williams was following.
In her rant at Ramos, Williams demanded an apology and also said, “We don’t have any code and I know you don’t know that and I understand why you may have thought that was coaching but I’m telling you it’s not. I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose.” The drama could have ended there, but it only got worse.
Williams Called The Umpire A Thief
After getting a point penalty for throwing her racket, Williams blew up yet again. Though she continued to play out the match, Williams grew frustrated with Ramos yet again saying, “You stole a point from me and you are a thief.” This was ruled as verbal abuse towards the umpire, which resulted in a game penalty.
“There are men out here that do a lot worse, but because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me?” Williams yelled at Ramos. The penalty brought Williams’ 20-year-old opponent, Naomi Osaka, just one game away from victory and it didn’t end there.
Williams Tries To Support The Winner
Of course, Naomi Osaka ended up winning the 2018 U.S. Open – her very first. But the huge moment was stolen from Osaka due to Williams’ dramatics on court. At the end of the match, the crowd relentlessly “booed” as Naomi Osaka was awarded her trophy.
Williams urged the crowd to calm down and said, “We’re going to get through this and let’s be positive. So congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.” Osaka later revealed that Williams told her personally how proud she was and to know that the crowd was booing the umpire, not her.
Williams Was Arguing For Women
For Osaka, the win was momentous because not only was it her first Grand Slam, but she beat out her idol, Serena Williams. She later said, “I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Williams gave up her 24th Grand Slam due to her arguing with the umpire, but she later said she did it for women’s rights. “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality… For me to say ‘thief’ and for [Ramos] to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark.”
Can She Ever Catch A Break?
When Sports Illustrated named Serena Williams their Sportsperson of the Year in 2015, people were ecstatic. At least, until the cover debuted to the public. Serena was pictured wearing a provocative lace bodysuit with heels while sitting on a golden throne.
It’s almost unsurprising that the cover was met with immense backlash. People complained that Williams was objectified, as opposed to looking like the powerful player that she is. While that much was true, it seemed that Ms. Williams couldn’t do anything without someone having something to say about it.
The One Battle They Didn’t Win
The Williams sisters came up during a time when society wasn’t as forthcoming in terms of gender equality like it is today. In 1998, German tennis player Karsten Braasch challenged the Williams sisters to a “Battle of the Sexes” contest at the Australian Open.
The challenge came after both sisters claimed they could beat any male player outside the top 200 and Braasch was ranked 203rd at the time. 30-year-old Braasch ended up beating both Venus and Serena in separate matches. They were only 17 and 16 at the time and later adjusted their claim to male players outside the top 350.
Keep Your Sister Close, But Your Opponent Closer
For all the battles the Williams sisters have faced, the toughest is perhaps the one they fought against each other. Though they’ve trained together since they were young, there was no doubt that they’d one day face each other as professionals.
As of 2018, Venus and Serena have been matched up against each other for a total of 30 times on the professional circuit, with Serena in the lead 18-12. One can only imagine what it’s like to lose to your sister, especially since they’re both wired to be very competitive.
“The Best Match She’s Ever Played Against Me”
Venus Williams lost to Serena again at the 2018 US Open, winning only three games against her younger sister. Though disappointed, 38-year-old Venus kept her head up and commended her sister.
She told the press, “We’ve had a lot of great matches, a lot of long matches. I guess I’d have to give that some thought honestly. Like I always say, I’m a forward-looking person. I don’t dwell on the past and contemplate it all day and night… I think it’s the best match she’s ever played against me. I don’t think I did a lot wrong. But she just did everything right.”
They Have The Top Serving Speeds In History
Pit them against each other as you will, but the Williams sisters at the very least have been breaking records together. Venus and Serena respectively hold the second and third fastest serves in the history of women’s tennis.
Serena clocked a 128.6 mph serve in 2013 at the Australian Open, while Venus’s 129 mph serve was achieved at the 2007 US Open. The latter was actually the fastest speed of all time for about seven years. The record for fastest serve ever went to Sabine Lisicki whose 131 mph serve topped Venus’s in 2014.
Serena Became A Certified Nail Technician
When a knee injury forced Serna Williams to stay off the tennis court, she didn’t squander that time. Instead, she made use of it to become a certified nail technician, putting in 240 hours at the Palm Beach Nail Academy.
She even did Oprah’s nails on live television, which counted towards her certification. Her sister Isha told ESPN, “She’s always been obsessed with her nails. And then it became, ‘I could do this myself. I’m going to nail school.’ She was completely fascinated. I didn’t believe her. Then she got injured and couldn’t play, and she enrolled herself in nail school.”
Serena Never Slows Down In Her Off Time
In the midst of her training and matches during 2011, the younger Williams sister enrolled at UMass University Without Walls, where she initially started out with business management, before eventually switching to pre-med.
Her sister Isha told ESPN, “She loves holistic medicine. It’s a real part of her study and what she wants to do… It’s like, how much can you learn? She wanted to speak French, so she’s fluent in French. Whatever she sets her mind to do, she goes after it with so much enthusiasm and commitment until she gets it done.”
They Lived Together For A Really Long Time
It seems that Venus and Serena Williams have pretty much spent their whole lives together. Instead of moving out of their parent’s house and going separate ways like most siblings, these sisters moved into an 8,500-square-foot mansion together in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Considering how big their shared property was, there was at least room for each adult sister to have her own space. Despite the stellar digs, they still divvied things up like regular roommates, going so far as to split the $1,500 utility bill according to some reports.
Close, But Oh So Far Away
The Williams sisters lived together for over 15 years before they finally went their separate ways. Both sisters went about buying their own homes around 2014, but they weren’t too upset about the split. Their new homes are only five miles apart from each other.
In 2013, Venus purchased a 1.03-acre parcel of land for $825,000 on which she built a contemporary residence, still in Palm Beach Gardens. Serena followed suit right after, purchasing a $4.1 million lot on which she built a home complete with a trophy room, a purse room, and a karaoke room.
“I’m Kind Of Scared, But I’m Growing Up”
Though they lived together for as many years as they did, they still had their own properties elsewhere in the world. Both of the sisters owned separate properties in Los Angeles, while Serena also owns an apartment in Paris.
On the official move away from Venus, Serena has said, “I am finally moving away from my sister after 34 or 35 years by the time [my house is] done… It’s a good time. I figure that will be my new life. Of course we will live down the street from one another… I’m kind of scared, but I’m growing up.”