Venus and Serena Williams lead clinic at Southeast tennis center
“The center is so important because, for us, it brings us full circle, growing up in Compton, California,” said Venus Williams, center (in black). “Coming back is similar because we see young people who really are us.”
Nearly every parent brought a camera, and every reporter wielded a tape recorder.
But the 150 children who descended on the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center on Thursday weren’t awestruck by the 20 Grand Slam titles or superstar status of their guest instructors.
And they weren’t concerned about whether Venus and Serena Williams plan to return to competition at next month’s French Open or at Wimbledon in June.
They just wanted to become better tennis players. And the near hour-long clinic with the Williams sisters gave them a chance to do just that.
“Serena is an excellent teacher!” proclaimed Tierra Holloway, 14, among those who hit with the four-time and current defending Wimbledon champion. “Every time she gave me advice, when I went back on court I hit better. She gave me many compliments on my tennis. And she told me my hair was pretty.”
The clinic, set to blaring music and emceed by the Washington Kastles’ exuberant coach, Murphy Jensen, was followed by an evening gala that also featured the sisters — all to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the tennis center.
With help from the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, the $5.1 million center has provided a safe place to play, learn and study for more than 2,000 children since 2001, using free tennis lessons as the lure.
Almost from the moment Cora Masters Barry envisioned the state-of-the-art complex in Ward 8, the Williams family — led by Oracene Price, Venus and Serena’s mother and a friend of Washington’s former first lady — has been a spirited supporter.
Said Venus Thursday: “The center is so important because, for us, it brings us full circle, growing up in Compton, California. Coming back [to Ward 8] is similar because we see young people who really are us. And it’s a great opportunity for us to really stay grounded and continue to do what’s important and to give back.”
The Williams sisters’ ascendance to the top of professional tennis is among the more remarkable stories in sports. Coached by their parents in a crime-ridden suburb of Los Angeles, they learned as young girls to hit with remarkable power and compete with ferocious will. And in 2002, they reached No. 1 in the world in turn.
But each has been sidelined by injury over the past year. And women’s tennis has suffered for it, as has the standing of American tennis. The last American to win a Grand Slam who was not named Williams was Andy Roddick, in 2003.
Serena hasn’t competed since winning Wimbledon, her 13th Grand Slam, last July 3. After cutting her right foot on in a freak accident four days later, she underwent two surgeries. Then in early March she was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital with a blood clot in one of her lungs and had a hematoma removed.
She resumed practicing just last week, triggering an Internet sensation after posting a photo of herself from the workout wearing a hot-pink bodysuit, later explaining that the form-fitting design provided compression that was helpful to her recovery.
Venus, 30, withdrew from the Australian Open with a hip injury in the third round. She hasn’t competed since, sidelined further by an abdominal injury.
Neither put a timetable on her return Thursday.
“I’m feeling better,” Serena said. “Just starting training a little later than I suspected. But it’s going slow and steady.”
Added Venus: “Of course our goal is [to return to competition] sooner rather than later. The one thing we learned from being away from the game is how much we love it. [Not competing] gives us opportunities to be out here, where normally we wouldn’t be able to. So we made the best of our time to do positive things.”
Thursday’s on-court vibes were positive, indeed, as boys and girls lined up to trade shots with Venus and Serena. Then the sisters moved to adjacent courts to work more closely with advanced students, who smacked the ball straight back at the champions without a trace of intimidation.
On one court, Venus, wearing black leggings and top, patiently demonstrated proper follow-through of a forehand for a tiny girl, taking her right hand in hers to complete the stroke in tandem.
“She’s not a yelling teacher,” Kayla Williams, 12, said about Venus. “She’s like a quiet teacher. She actually shows you instead of yelling at you!”
Serena, meantime, organized her charges into doubles teams, stood back and studied their skills.
“You guys are doing excellent!” said Serena, in green-and-white tie-dyed style capris and coordinated top. “But I want you to work on your consistency. If you have to hit it softer, hit it softer.”
Then she proceeded to rip a forehand to one corner of the court.
“She’s making her comeback right here at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center!” Jensen bellowed into his microphone. “She’s BACK!”