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'Offensive, ridiculous and unfair' - Oracene Williams mounts strong defence of her daughters
Exclusive: Mother prepares for mission to spread the game in Africa
By Alex Hayes
07 July 2002
Different parent, same outspoken views. With Richard Williams out of town this year, Oracene Williams has been the talk of the village. We are talking about Wimbledon Village, of course, a place where bright orange hair and funky clothes can hardly go unnoticed.
Not that Mrs Williams cares what anyone thinks of her. This weekend, she is far more concerned with the latest accusation, this time from the French player Amélie Mauresmo, that her two girls, Venus and Serena, somehow contrive their matches. "Firstly, I find that quite offensive," she says. "Secondly, I would like to know how you could predetermine the outcome of a meeting. It's not like the girls are betting on this or something. I find it ridiculous and really unfair when all they have done is gone out there and tried their hardest.
"It's a throwback to the master-slave mentality that they should go out on court and be really aggressive towards each other. They're sisters who care for each other and their reactions towards each other are only human."
She adds: "I think critics should think a bit more about what they are saying. Don't they realise how tough it is for two sisters to play against one another? I know that Serena is always the slightly hungrier one of the two because she is the youngest and wants to prove herself. I think that it's trickier for Venus. As the eldest, she wants to maintain her position, but she is also anxious not to hurt her little sister."
Williams is not only the devotedmother of the greatest sister act in the history of tennis, she is also extremely proud of her roots. Having accompanied her daughters on their joint quest for Wimbledon supremacy until yesterday's dénouement on Centre Court, the most recognisable tennis mom in the world is now preparing for a tour of Africa.
Following two weeks of coaching, coaxing, shopping, and divided loyalties, the woman they call Brandi is finally "going home to help my people". "I'm desperate to promote tennis over there and get kids involved," Williams explains. "The only African children who play tennis are the ones who go over to America to be at college. They are the few privileged ones and, by the time they get into the sport, they are usually too old to start a career. It would take a whole lot of determination and courage for an African kid to make it so late in life." It underlines her argument when you consider there were no black African competitors at the Championships this year.
Next week's visit to Africa is a two-pronged affair. On the one hand, Williams wants to "put Africa on the tennis map"; on the other, she hopes to "raise the profile of women in Africa". "It is ridiculous," she says, "that nothing is ever done in Africa. It's almost like people who have less aren't even considered. I can't speak for Britain, but this American administration, particularly in the current climate, does not do anything for Africa. The United States simply aren't interested."
Not so long ago, America were not interested in the Williams sisters either. "Africa is facing the same sort of barriers that we had to deal with," she says. "We were not from a rich neighbourhood, and we were never given anything."
The other part of the Williams plan is to empower African women. "That's almost the most important bit," she says. "In the few schemes that have been started in Africa, women are never the priority. Whether it be in education or the workplace, women are barely considered. That's why this programme is so close to my, and my girls', heart. It's time for change." Williams does not limit her views to Africa. She also feels that European women need to assert themselves more. "Women, particularly here in your country," she says with only a hint of a smile, "take too much of a back seat. There are so many chauvinistic attitudes here in England. Not just against women in every day life, but against sportswomen, too. And they seem to accept it. It's amazing that the girls on the Tour don't think they deserve more money. That's a shame, because to be perfectly honest, when I bump into people they tell me that men's tennis makes them turn off their TV. Women are the ones keeping tennis interesting at the moment and yet they are the ones being penalised for that."
Williams has always been keen to promote her African heritage. She has, by the same token, encouraged the girls to follow suit. "I want them to know who they are and what they are," she says. "That's why I wanted them to wear beads in their hair when they first started out on tour because I felt it was important they understand where they come from. They're African American and they should be proud of it."
The hope is that the success of the Williams siblings will raise the profile of tennis in Africa and, eventually, lead to a Women's Tennis Association tournament being held on the continent. "They've had Davis Cup ties there, but never a proper event," Williams says. "I think it would be wonderful to take the tennis family out there."
For now, the aim of this first African journey is to go to South Africa, Ghana and Senegal and lay the foundations for a possible visit by Venus and Serena later in the year. "I think the girls will go out there," she says, "and, like Muhammad Ali did when he went to Africa, help change people's lives. From what I see and hear, I think that there are quite a few people who feel better about themselves thanks to what Venus and Serena have achieved. Women tell me they have learnt to be more confident, and that's quite complimentary for the girls. It proves that anyone who is down-and-out can make it in life."
Mrs Williams, unlike her estranged husband, Richard, is not one for mingling with the crowds. Nor is she keen on losing any perspective when talking about the achievements of her two girls. "I think that everyone, including my daughters, needs to be fully aware, but not full, of themselves," she says. "Sometimes I feel like people make a whole hoohah over something which is only the girls' job. Playing tennis is what they do, and being the best just happens to be part of that.
"When I hear that there is a statue of the two girls in Washington, it makes us all wonder. We visited it last year, and Serena was speechless. I think she was amazed how a 20-year-old could be immortalised like this. She was proud, but my daughters are humble. If they lost that, they would soon begin to tumble." With a mother like Oracene, we could be waiting a long time.
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