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Before Superstardom, Williams Sisters Stunned On Compton’s Courts



On Stockton Street, in Compton, Calif., there’s a small white stucco house with a chain-link fence and an old tree out front. There’s isn’t a sign or plaque in the yard, and there aren’t any tour groups taking photos. There’s nothing here to indicate that this house, in this quiet



neighborhood, was the childhood home of two of the best athletes of all time. Long before the U.S. Open this week, before the Nike and Gatorade sponsorships and before the stardom, a young Venus and Serena Williams were given their first tennis rackets here.





The girls cut their teeth on courts around Compton. And to this day, the Williams sisters are a source of pride in the city.

“To be able to say that they’re from the town that you grew up in — who wouldn’t be inspired by them?” says Janna Zurita, a Compton councilwoman. She was born and raised in Compton, and says she used to watch the Williams sisters train.





“A lot of the little kids here in the community, they look up to them and they think they’re great. I mean, they’re two beautiful women that changed the whole life of tennis,” Zurita says. “And they’re straight outta Compton.”

Their dad, Richard Williams, was their coach back then. He was known for being tough and pushing his daughters to perfection on the court — hours on the courts, day in, day out.

Some of the places where they’d practice were in rough neighborhoods, like East Rancho Dominguez Park, formerly known as East Compton Park. Today, the courts are repaved and there’s a new recreation center — but that’s not how it used to be. Training meant hitting hundreds of balls with enough force to break the strings on their racquets.

“Every other day, I was restringing my racquets,” Andre Barbee says. “My shoes, once a week. A hole right in my foot of my shoe. Used to tape them up.” They’d run drills up and down the court, honing their power at the baseline.

Barbee was a tennis prodigy himself, so when he faced Venus and Serena on the court, he had finally met his match. Venus wasn’t even a teenager yet. “I love them like my little sisters,” says Barbee. “And Richard Williams, I loved him like a father. He was like a dad, you know? I miss training with them. At the time, I didn’t have a high school diploma. And [Richard] told me, ‘Promise me that you get your high school diploma.’

“Richard? I kept my promise,” he says. “I have my high school diploma.”

Barbee doesn’t play much tennis these days. But on this court, I can see him reliving that year he spent training with Venus and Serena Williams. And for the record, the last time he played Serena, they never finished their match.

“She didn’t beat me yet,” Barbee says. “So Serena, if you’re hearing this, you still owe me a match. I can still play. It’s just, I can’t play long. I can play a set. Come on Serena, give me one set.”

Barbee starts laughing.

He’s ready for a rematch on the tennis courts at the corner of Compton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, where it all started.

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