Saturday, July 9, 2011

On Serena, cheeseburgers and a bold statement

   The first time Wayne Bryan saw Venus and Serena Williams, they were 8 and 6 years old, respectively.
   Bryan, who will coach the host Sacramento Capitals against Serena and the Washington Kastles in a World TeamTennis match tonight at 7:30 at Sunrise Mall, was conducting a clinic at UCLA.
   “There were 300 or 400 kids and a lot of coaches and parents in the stands,” recalled Bryan, a longtime resident of Camarillo, Calif. (between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara). “I noticed two skinny little girls. I said on the microphone, ‘Who’s the parent of these girls?’ A man said, ‘I am.’
   Bryan continued, "These girls have a lot of talent. They’re welcome to come out to Camarillo and hit.”
   Richard Williams and his daughters subsequently made the 90-minute drive from their home in Compton in the Los Angeles area to Camarillo.
   “They came in a tan van held together by coat hangers and tape,” Bryan said. “The girls hustled and hit the ball well, and I bought them all cheeseburgers.
   “Every time I see Richard, he says, ‘Thanks for the cheeseburgers.' I don’t know if they came for the clinic or the cheeseburgers.”
   Did Bryan, the father of doubles stars Bob and Mike Bryan, predict stardom for the Williams sisters?
   “The first thing I look for is passion,” he said. “They had that. Then I look for athletic ability. They had that. Then I look for dedicated parents who are positive with the child. They had that. Those are three pretty big ingredients. Nobody can predict athletic greatness at 6 or 8, but they certainly had a lot going for them."
   Serena, who turns 30 in September, will return to her home state (although she was born in Saginaw, Mich.) tonight to make her first appearance in the Sacramento area. Venus played for the now-defunct Delaware Smash against the Capitals at the same site in 2005.
   After Serena won Wimbledon last year, Sports Illustrated proclaimed her the greatest female player ever. Even though she ranks sixth with 13 Grand Slam singles titles, SI argued that:
   --Serena plays in a far more competitive era than Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert (18) and Martina Navratilova (18).
   --The serve is the most important shot in tennis, and everyone from Navratilova to former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport agrees that Serena's is the best in history.
   Tennis journalist and historian Bud Collins is unwilling to anoint Serena as the best ever, saying it's impossible to compare players of different eras. But in an exclusive interview at the BNP Paribas Cup in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, the 82-year-old International Tennis Hall of Famer called the Williams sisters "the two most remarkable players in history. I don't think there's any doubt about that.
   "They came from a difficult background, they didn't play junior tennis, they said what they were going to do (become the top two players in the world), and they did it. There's never been anyone like them."
   Serena, though, endured a nightmarish 11 months following her fourth Wimbledon singles title last year. She underwent two operations on her foot after stepping on broken glass at a restaurant in Munich and was hospitalized in February with life-threatening blood clots in both of her lungs. 
   Serena returned to the tour last month, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in the second tournament of her comeback. Normally stoic, she cried after her first-round victory over Aravane Rezai of France.
   "It was so emotional for me," Serena said afterward, "because I've been through a lot of things throughout the last 12 months that aren't normal, things you guys don't even know about. It's just been a long, arduous road. To stand up still is pretty awesome."
   On Thursday, Serena helped Washington beat the visiting Boston Lobsters in her first sanctioned match in the United States in almost two years. First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia attended the match.    
   Now it's on to Sacramento to face her old friend, Wayne Bryan.

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