PARIS — What a difference. The last time Serena Williams lost at a Grand Slam, it was all rather operatic, beyond bizarre. Late into her U.S. Open match against Kim Clijsters, she told a lineswoman, “I’m going to shove this f—— ball down your f——throat.” Ouch.
Serena was tossed. Chaos reigned. Under the stands, Richard Williams told one leading reporter to get out of his face, and when another approached him, he gestured to security and said, “Get this dog out of my face.” (In Paris, some nine months later, Williams offered a heartfelt apology.)
Serena doesn’t have much to apologize about unless it’s some kind of a crime to start slow, uncork error after error and, when you finally wrest control of a not-so-pretty battle against an athletic Aussie (who looks like a super Olympian or beach volleyball maven), you take your foot off the petal and fail to convert a match point. The best closer in women’s tennis didn’t close against Samantha Stosur on Wednesday, and after her loss, in the player’s lounge, there was more of a fuss by all the Spanish friends and fans trying to jostle and postion themselves to get those swanky seats in the International Box, than any attention on the Williams camp.
A few of Serena’s friends sat sullen and ignored by the players cafeteria.
Venus Williams, four rackets efficiently wrapped in plastic, chatted with her super-mom, Oracene (call her Brandi) Price. The mood was glum. But Brandi has seen it all. Over the past decade, few have sat through (let’s not say endured) more matches. But Brandi is made of a different fabric. She’s the anti-tennis wonk.
“So, Oracene,” she’s been asked a billion times, “what happened in the match today” The response is usually the same. “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask an expert.”
She doesn’t like to talk to the press and, to tell the truth, I didn’t fancy talking with her either. After all, for the eighth time in 10 tries, Serena’s Parisian run had been de-railed before the semis. So I just watched as my pal Scott Price of Sports Illustrated talk with her. But then she just sat alone. So what’s a reporter to do? Mats Wilander, the best tennis quote in town, was nowhere in sight. Venus had disappeared into the locker room. Her new coach du jour, Mike Sell, was MIA. So I leapt, tentatively, into the fray – not even turning on my tape recorder.
“Kind of a tough match,” I began. “Yeah,” she replied. “Not much rhythm,” I said, simultaneously thinking that my interview didn’t have much rhythm.
I said to myself, ‘This is Oracene. You’ve got to get off tennis fast.’ These days, everyone talks about ttheir work in Africa. Roger Federer’s got a great foundation. Justine Henin was brought to tears and transformed when she went to the war zone in the Congo, and earlier in the week, I had talked to Serena about the two schools she opened in Africa.
So I journied to Africa, so to speak, and asked Brandi what Serena opening the schools meant to her.
Placid and distant before, a gaze in place, Brandi’s eyes suddenly alit. I was onto something. I literally knelt on my knee so I could hear her in the crowded players lounge and turned on my beloved tape recorder.
INSIDE TENNIS: Her school is in a really difficult part of the country.
ORACENE PRICE: Yeah, she has one in Senegal and one in Kenya.
IT: You just said that that’s the real part of life, not tennis.
OP: The real part of life is after tennis, then you’re living what everyone else lives. You go to work, you’re living the real life. This here is all, like, the adulations, the autographs, stuff like that. Real life starts later.
IT: You’re saying her African schools brought her into contact with the everyday problems of regular people. On her first trip to Africa, she had a transformative experience at that slave castle where they shipped out all the…
OP: Yes. That was the turning point for her.
IT: In her bio, she spoke of the vibes in the castle, the generations who passed through there.
OP: She found that to be really enlightening. Because It was an awakening. She learned a lot about herself.
IT: She felt she could almost feel the legacy of generations?
IT: Was that part of her inspiration to open the schools? Because sometimes we see her on the awards shows, in the spotlight, all the glitz. But does she talk about the meaning of those schools?
OP: I don’t know, because I don’t read a lot of her press. I don’t read any of you guys.
IT: Thanks a lot. You know how to hurt a guy’s feelings.
OP: When I’m home…I save a lot of stuff and go back and read and then I can laugh.
IT: Back to the mid-’90s, you’ve watched so many matches. Do you ever just step back and say wow, those are my two kids?
OP: No. I’m grounded. I live in the real world. [Laughing.]
IT: With all these pretty people walking right past us now and all the buzz here, do you sometimes think that this is like just its own separate place, a world apart?
OP: Yeah, it is, because a lot of times when these people get to the real world they don’t know what to do. It’s like they say, yeah what can I do? I’m not getting all the attention. I just don’t get it when I see these people running around saying you’re my idol. That overwhelms me. I don’t get it. Because to me, everyone here is human and has character and strength like anyone else.
IT: Still in my daughter’s eighth grade class, there was a poster of Serena. In this confusing world do people somehow need role models?
OP: The greatest role model in the world is Jesus Christ.
IT: Do kids and people who’re having a tough go of it have to have people to look up to?
OP: You can have someone that you can model yourself after and copy or have some of their ideas to help. But I don’t think you should just go and do everything that a person does. You should have stable ground for yourself. That comes from your background. I guess with people that don’t have stable background, they don’t get the whole thing.
IT: The amazing thing people see with Serena and Venus, is — religion aside — they really have each other’s backs. They’re so tight and so supportive. Does that give you a great deal of pride?
OP: Well, that’s just family. Families should be tight.
IT: But a lot of sibs don’t even talk, there’s no connection.
OP: That’s really stupid. That’s why when they were young and they’d fight, I’d say, You guys are going to have to settle it. I didn’t intervene. They settled it themselves. Now it’s unreal; they don’t argue. I say, Okay, that’s not real, because me and my sister argue. We love each other but we argue, you know what I’m saying?
IT: Isn’t it true from the days when they were in their bunks in L.A., Serena really played her sympathy card as the youngest one and Venus was the protector?
OP: Serena put herself there because she’s youngest, and all her sisters created that for her. I didn’t. They created her by protecting her and if they were playing a game and she didn’t win, they’ll say she won.
IT: Serena’s so savvy, didn’t she play that up?
OP: She plays it up. She uses it to this day.
IT: Do you remember the time in a junior tournament Serena came in second to Venus and Venus said to her, ‘Oh, I like silver; I’ll trade you my gold one?’
OP: That was so long ago. Yeah.
IT: Then there was the time when Venus won her first championship as a kid, and Richard went around the neighborhood getting the local paper there, and one of your daughters, who didn’t know how to drive stick was told to take the wheel of your van and there was a fender bender.
OP: Oh, that was Isha. She had a little bump. I thought that was really crazy. He shouldn’t have let her drive. That was his [Richard’s] fault.
IT: Do you ask yourself whether you should have put your kids into tennis?
OP: Sometimes I wondered if I should. I do have doubts.
AN AP WRITER JOINS US AND ASKS: Do you feel like Serena was in control…
OP I don’t know. You know what, I can’t even tell you that. Only a player could ….
AP: Did you sense that she never was really comfortable?
OP: Not even from the first serve.
IT: What do you think that was about?
OP: She’s had some wins over Stosur…Maybe she was trying to get over that hump. That might have been on her mind …I should have talked to her. I didn’t know that. [laughter.]
IT: What do you think about Paris?
OP: It’s like New York …I wouldn’t want to live here. That’s all I can say. It’s too much.
IT: But your daughter was compared to Jacqueline Kennedy when she spoke French in the press conference yesterday.
OP: She spoke French? Which one?
OP: Oh, yeah, she’s always speaking her bootleg French.
IT: Did you get a chance to see her after the match?
OP: No. I won’t see her — I’m not saying anything to her right now. She’ll be pissed. She will be pissed at herself.
IT: What does that mean? Will she be quiet tonight? You can’t talk to her for the rest of the day, or…
OP: If she felt that she did the best she could, I can talk to her. If she felt that she didn’t, I can’t say nothing.
IT: When you are sitting there early in the match, do you get a sense that she’s in gear or maybe not?
OP: Of course. Both of them. I can tell when they’re not. With Venus, she sometimes just doesn’t have her rhythm…She’ll feel uncomfortable the whole time…I can’t do anything about it, because it’s here. You know, they have to work it out. I can’t do anything about that. I can tell them…
IT: Can you remember a win and a loss that really stands out to you in the haze?
OP: When she was at Hobart in Australia, I told her, Serena, they don’t want you at this tournament because you’re the top seed. They figure you shouldn’t be here. It was a small tournament. So you’re gonna have to really step it up, because they’re gonna give you everything they got. She didn’t listen, and then she lost to Sybille Bammer. I didn’t see her for two days. And then she went to Melbourne and won there. That was that year she won. And with all odds against her about two years ago.
IT: If you could change one thing in their careers what would …
OP: Nothing, because they’re pretty happy.
AP: Venus is about to turn 30. Did you ever expect them to play this long?
OP: No, never thought about that. The way she talked, whatever. You never know. Could be tomorrow [when she retires.] Depends on which way the wind blows.
IT: They fight, they inspire people. But are you proud of their athleticism? Is that important?
OP: I don’t think it’s that important. A lot of it they got through their genetics. I’m just glad to see them to be able to use it, their talent, and not just let it waste. That’s something I’m proud of. Because sometimes a lot of people have more talent probably than what they have, and never got to see it.
IT: For a long time, Venus was wearing outfits that were okay, but nothing special. But since Australia, she’s been wearing some incredible ones: the black lace with red trim here, the red one in Miami with the flurs and in Melbourne …
OP: She’s feeling good. I like ’em. I’m glad she’s getting the edge back.
IT: The lace one is real pretty?
IT: I hope she doesn’t go back to…
OP: She’s got something for Wimbledon.
IT: Oh, okay. Can you give us a tiny, just a hint?
IT: Oh, come one, something small.
IT: Did all the controversy at the U.S. Open stick with Serena for a long time last year.
OP: I don’t even remember it.
IT: She got into a controversy with…
OP: Oh, that?
IT: Did it stick, or was it actually something that…
OP: That’s Serena out on the court, anyway. That’s the first time you saw it. Okay? Okay, you guys gonna write negative articles about…
IT: We haven’t even asked about a certain subject that’s really, really tough. Jill [Schmoeler, the Williams PR person who come over to listen] doesn’t want to hear this, but are you sad about what happened years ago in 2002 in California at Indian Wells? Is that something that saddens you?
OP: Yeah, it saddens me.
IT: Do you wish that maybe things had been different?
OP: Yeah. I think — to me, it was handled like, Yeah, let the crowd boo, respond, and do whatever they want and they didn’t even try to control it.
IT: So are saying that the people in charge should have intervened and said, “Let’s hear something good about this great, young 19-year-old?”
OP: Uh‑huh. And they didn’t do anything.
IT: Let me ask you a very difficult question, because in Christianity, there is the whole principle of turning the other cheek. I was there…[Now] is there any chance down the line that they might say [okay and] and go to [Charlie] Pasarell, go to Steve Simon, [and say] Okay, let’s make this positive; let’s make this a reconciliation in some way and…
OP: I don’t know. They haven’t — I don’t know if they’ve even thought about it. I haven’t talked to them about it. I’ve thought about it.
IT: Is that something in your heart that…
OP: I thought about it. I thought about maybe, okay, maybe it’s time to get back.
IT: The two most special players to come out of California are not playing the California tournament is tough. Do you think that if they did it would be healing in some ways for people of all backgrounds?
OP: Well, you know, when you think about it, they’ve been away from it for so long, it probably don’t matter to them.
IT: You don’t think so?
IT: People talk about it. Our two greatest champions aren’t there.
OP: You think they really miss them? Come on.
IT: I think some do.
OP: They’d probably go there and they’d get booed again. I don’t think they want to take that chance.
IT: I don’t think they would be. Do you think there could be some way it could be changed?
OP: Yeah, if they write on the front page that they apologize. [Laughter.] Print lies. I don’t know.