Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The mother behind the Williams' sisters

Tennis star Serena Williams and her mother Oracene Price durig their recent visit to Kenya. Oracene says her celebrity daughter is not too old to get a spanking! Photo/MOHAMED AMIN 

By MERCY GAKII

Mother Power comes in different forms. Most people have memories of their mother’s involvement in their lives from very early on – the perennial fights over what to wear, especially during teenage – and the transition into best friends in later years.

Fifty-six-year-old Oracene Price, the mother and one-time coach of two great tennis stars, Venus and Serena Williams, knows all about the need to be an involved parent. Over the last decade, her daughters have changed the face of the game from a mainly white-dominated sport to prove that anyone can succeed with discipline and determination.

Oracene, who had accompanied her daughter Serena to Kenya on a charity tour last week, quietly watched as throngs of admirers jostled to catch a glimpse of the tennis star. She does not invade her daughter’s celebrity status, choosing instead to mingle with the crowd.

“I am no celebrity, only my daughters are,” she says by way of correcting an impression given by one journalist’s question about how much she enjoys the public life.

Two of five

Venus and Serena are two of five daughters. Sadly, one of them, Yetunde, died in 2003 in a shooting incident in Los Angeles. Yetunde owned a beauty salon and was the personal assistant to her two tennis-playing sisters.

The others are Lyndrea, who is a web designer, and Isha, a corporate lawyer who also accompanied her sister and mother on the trip to Kenya.

Before their arrival here, mother and daughters had been in South Africa for another charity function, and Senegal to view prospective sites on which to build schools.

“Serena loves anything education,” comments Oracene, as she watches her daughter excitedly cut the tape to officially open a school named after her in Makueni District. “She hopes to help as many children go to school as she can.”

Asked how much of their money the tennis champions spend on the fast life, Oracene is quick to explain that “the girls” as she fondly refers to her daughters, are not really into that kind of thing, preferring to spend their cash on ‘solid’ projects such as establishing schools.

“They will occasionally go on vacation after a tough tennis season, but that’s it,” she says, adding that she herself has no say whatsoever over what they do with their money.

The journey to stardom was never easy, as the girls started out in a neighborhood ridden with crime, and at one time in their younger years even had to contend with a shoot-out by gangsters while training in the open grounds of Compton, Los Angeles, where they grew up.

“I remember when they started playing tennis. Nobody forced them. They were always in the courts early, even before their father or I would get there.

Those days we trained them together,” says Oracene of the time when she and her ex-husband supported their daughters’ interest in a sport that was mainly associated with white people. The girls even had racist words flung at them occasionally while they were on the courts.

But all that is behind them now, as the Williams girls went on to completely dominate the sport in a way that made the world sit up and take notice. These days, Oracene, who trained in tennis in order to coach her daughters, sits back and watches while her daughters slug it out on the court.

The mother behind the stars says of Serena, who is 27, “She is the youngest, which makes her feel like she is still the baby. She is sometimes cheeky, and can be irritating.

I sometimes have to remind her that she could still get a spanking! Just recently, she said something just to irritate me. I asked her, ‘Do you want me to take that?’ and she shut up immediately.”

Humble and respectful

Oracene notes that despite the girls’ huge success, they have managed to remain humble and respectful. Venus, 29, is more inclined to projects that involve women and children, having been on world tours with the children’s fund, Unicef.

“Venus is more focused and loves to improve on her knowledge,” says Oracene. “She reads a lot, and is always looking for projects to do. She is constantly working to improve – whether it’s her game or career in interior design. She trains more seriously and is more purpose-driven while Serena is sometimes lazy. She wants to stay in bed longer, or go and train later. She knows she is the baby and wants to get away with it.”

Asked about the father of her children, Oracene reacts with an “oops!” She focuses on the distant landscape and is silent for a moment, then calmly reveals her marital status: “I am divorced and for now, I can’t tell you much about Richard, the father of my girls.”

Oracene, a devout follower of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, describes herself as a deeply spiritual woman. She believes her biggest influence on her daughters has been stability, faith and discipline. And when it comes to politics, she is neutral.

“I am neutral when it comes to politics, but I pray for (President-elect, Barack) Obama every day, that God will help him in everything he sets out to do. I hope he will make a difference, although he has to be very careful now that he is in a very high office,” she says.

The former teacher reveals that she home-schooled her children before taking up nursing. And now she is trying out a career in public speaking. “I like to keep on learning something new; that’s why I have kept changing careers – to avoid boredom!” she concludes.

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