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Books: Reading mode 3 – n.20

Screaming it after having scored a victorious point is the dream, secret or confessed, of any amateur tennis player, in the illusion of believing himself – even just for a second – to be a champion, like those at the top of the present or past world rankings.
Among these certainly include the Williams sisters: Venus (born 17 June 1980) and Serena (born 26 September 1981), who dominated international professional tennis in the first twenty years of the third millennium with their powerful playing style and their personal and family history.

A story told in the book The Williams (2022, New Compton publishers, Rome, 318 pages, 9.90 euros). Authors: the historical popularizer Andrea Frediani and the sports journalist Matteo Renzoni. The subtitle – almost a big name for this biography – is: The untold story of the family that changed women’s tennis. Reading it feels like being in the grandstands of a stadium and watching exciting competitions, where the score is always fought over and the twists and turns leave you breathless… of the series: tennis as a metaphor for life. The players in the field-called-life are varied.
First Richard Williams makes his entrance, a man with great self-confidence and an affectionate but also stubborn father, who aspires to climb the social ladder and decides to transform two of his daughters into champions by respecting a plan conceived even before their birth. In the middle of the life field there is always a network: on one side Richard, on the other challenges and risks that come like violent blows and which he has faced since childhood in places polluted by racism and social degradation. A succession of human events so daring that at times one wonders whether they are part of a fictional intent, a legitimate question also due to a clarification revealing Richard’s tendency towards hyperbole. In short, a doubt comparable to a disputed point, when a ball lands very close to the white line: is the mark left on the ground inside or outside? Is it stung or not? In the end, the point is given to Richard, it is assessed that the blow left a regulatory mark and that probably all the human events listed fall within the scope of the truth, especially since they appear to be contained in his autobiographical book. Furthermore, there are the words of Venus and Serena to testify that their childhood was incredible, full of dangers, so daily that perhaps they became a sort of mental training to be able to endure the tensions of a tennis career with enviable tenacity. For example, on the occasion of the opening of a center for victims of violence in memory of their sister Yetunde (killed in the infamous suburb of Compton in California) Venus and Serena reported the countless times in which, while playing on the tennis courts public, they were forced to throw themselves on the ground upon hearing the shots, with the fear of being hit by stray bullets.

In the book, Oracene, Richard’s wife, is mentioned a few times. On the pitch, or rather in her life, there is and certainly her contribution was fundamental as she was a caring mother and fervent believer. For her, education and respect have always been the basis of her daughters’ education and her warning was simple: “Behave well!”. Furthermore, for the Williams daughters, faith played an important role. But in fact Oracene does not stand out in the book, she remains in the background, almost in the role of sparring partner. One clarification above all photographs this figure: “Luckily for him, Oracene supports him”. Certain! Because if Richard had not had the support of a wife capable of supporting him in his life plan that almost everyone considered crazy, perhaps the Williams champions would not have existed.

The careers of the two sisters are also outlined with the description of some fundamental and heart-pounding matches in prestigious tournaments (Indian Wells; ; Wimbledon; Australian Open; Roland Garros; Olympics), with opponents with high-sounding names (Martina Hingis; Lindsay Davenport ; Maria Sharapova; Caroline Wozniacki; Garbiñe Muguruza, etc.). Challenges retraced with an engaging and competent language on the subject, capable of showing attitudes, customs, superstitious gestures, reactions, details in clothing and hairstyles that tennis enthusiasts immediately recognize as belonging to the protagonists mentioned, so much so that they have the curiosity to view certain matches from times gone by immortalized on Youtube. And now knowing, thanks to this book, certain background stories makes us see those matches with different eyes, aware of the sacrifices that preceded the mythical or painful outcomes. Yes the two Williams can afford to shout, in a peremptory tone, Come on! because each of their points is the result of exceptional talent, dedication, technique, methodicality and willpower. Plus, the victories are worth double when you consider their health issues. Discovering their human falls and their rebirths in a sort of sporting immortality raises a question: how did they manage to remain at very high competitive levels despite certain problems? A question that remains suspended in mid-air, as sometimes happens to the ball that touches the net and begins to fluctuate in the density of suspense, undecided whether to fall in one half of the court or the other. In the end, the judge-destiny wants the deciding point to go to admiration. And, page after page, we understand better why their exploits have increased the number of fans and have become not only a social phenomenon but also a model for new generations of players.

What makes everything even more fairytale is the fact that the two sisters often clashed on the playgrounds where competition does not rhyme with affection. Who knows what they really said to each other before the races, if they confided their respective fears. Who knows what was really going on in the heads and hearts of both of them when they were on the pitch! Nobody can know, because what is revealed on the microphones are only phrases of circumstance, of diplomacy: public champions do not have the privilege of expressing their real emotions, they could become vulnerable to attack. And in tennis anything can happen if the racket feels the muscles are too stiff from the tension that is always there, even when it seems impossible. As happened in a match which – let the shamelessly tricolor support be justified – was won against all odds by Roberta Vinci in New York, September 2015, when at the time Serena Williams was in one of her greatest splendors so much so that, for various reasons , the clash seemed unthinkable (“excited and frail Roberta, tense and massive Serena. The second could easily be the guardian of the first”). Reading the chapter relating to that match makes you emotional with memories, it also makes you smile (famous and frank is the phrase shouted by the Italian towards the public to encourage herself, to fill up on adrenaline) and above all it reminds us that life is like tennis , or vice versa: the result should never be taken for granted. Just as the protagonists on the pitch cannot be taken for granted, not even when they seem impervious to emotions: outside the lines of the playing field there is much more, there is multifaceted daily life, and beneath appearances there is a humanity that makes the characters seen only a little less extraterrestrials on the screen. For example, Venus’s sense of protection towards Serena in worldwide vision, as within the home; the uncontainable exultation of both like ballet or jumps after certain victories which in addition to a monetary value also have a symbolic value; Richard’s esteem and gratitude towards Julia, his beloved mother; certain experiences lived during childhood that contributed to making the two Williams responsible and strengthening their work ethic; a record-breaking final for Serena played five weeks pregnant; her body changing after pregnancy; the psychotherapy process after the final lost in the 2018 US-Open tournament in which Serena broke down and even cried: “I have a daughter and I have never cheated in my entire life… I fought so hard to play this match…”.

In short, a book that doesn’t just talk about tennis and, once you’ve finished reading, the loudest applause goes to a statement that’s worth more than a golden cup: “To face a challenge you need to have self-confidence. A blind faith in one’s own possibilities that derives from the unconditional love of one’s parents.”

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