The majesty of Roland Garros. The manicured lawns of Wimbledon. The bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The Williams sisters have owned these courts and so many more. But all their many travels trace back to one court – one cracked, black-topped, wire-netted court at the corner of Compton Boulevard and Lime Avenue in Compton, Calif.
It’s been a quarter-century since Richard Williams brought his two young daughters to this court. Back then, needles littered the ground and gangbangers lurked along the baselines. Now, with Serena, having won her opening-round match on Monday in the U.S. Open, on the cusp of becoming just the fourth woman ever to complete the Grand Slam, it’s worth considering what she left behind, and what stays with her to this day.
Compton’s one of those cities that looks a lot better from a distance of both miles and years. Mythologized on record and in film, home to celebrities from Dr. Dre to Kevin Costner, Compton earned its nationwide reputation as a violent, corrupt, drug-ridden hellscape one crime at a time, largely as a result of the murderous, gang-laden 1980s. With a population of roughly 100,000, Compton topped out at 87 homicides in 1991 – nearly two a week. Nearby cities removed Compton’s name from their street signs, lest the city’s bloody image stain their own.
During these days, James Pyles taught math at Morningside High School in nearby Inglewood. He also coached tennis on the side, and under his tutelage Morningside, one of the few minority tennis teams in the area, hung with established powers from the tony areas of Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes and Santa Monica.
But a new principal – the 19th in 19 years at Morningside – decreed athletics out and academics paramount. Pyles tried in vain to keep the tennis program going. Around this time, he got a call from his sister, Judy Jones, the director of East Compton Park.
“I’ve got this old guy who wants to teach his two girls how to play tennis,” Jones said. “See if you can help them.”
Pyles met this “old guy” – a fellow by the name of Richard – who showed up at the courts with his two young daughters.
“This is Serena,” Richard Williams said, pointing to the younger daughter. “See what you can do with her. I’ll be over here with Venus.”
In his autobiography, Richard Williams contended that he wanted the girls to grow up in Compton because it would strengthen them. “It would make them tough, give them a fighter’s mentality,” he wrote. “They’d be used to combat. And how much easier would it be to play in front of thousands of white people if they had already learned to play in front of scores of armed gang members?”
Sound idea in theory, lunatic idea in practice. “It was a world of crime and bloodshed and soon we were trapped in the middle of daily gun battles and shootouts,” Richard Williams wrote, adding a bit of topspin to his prose. “We quickly learned how to escape the bullets that flew through the air unconcerned about their next victims – we fell to our knees in the posture of prayer and crawled like defenseless children to safety.”
“That I remember full well, only the shots themselves didn’t sound all that terrifying until I learned what they were,” Serena wrote in her 2009 autobiography. “At first, I just thought someone was setting off firecrackers or popping some balloons, but once I learned what the sound meant it would shake me up pretty good.”
“Never mind the noise, Meeka,” Richard would say, calling Serena by her pet nickname. “Just play.”
“Daddy believed tennis was our ticket up and out of Compton, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Los Angeles where we lived,” Serena wrote. “We had to develop a passion for the game and an iron will to succeed, and all these things would take time presenting themselves.”
For two years Pyles helped Richard drill the girls on those Compton courts, every day from early afternoon until sundown. The only exception was on Wednesdays, when the girls would break early to study French in preparation for the day they won the French Open. (Serena has won the event three times, including this year; Venus reached the finals once, in 2002, where she lost to Serena.)
“There were just two courts at the park in Compton,” Serena wrote, “so the few recreational players there would know to get their games in during the day, because when three o’clock rolled around Richard would be pulling up in his Volkswagen minibus, dirty yellow with a white top, with his … girls spilling out onto those courts like they had their names on them.”
Venus, at the time, was the Chosen One; she hadn’t lost any matches of consequence and appeared destined for stardom. Serena? She was a good kid, but seemed a lot more interested in playing than winning.
“Richard didn’t think Serena was going to make it,” Pyles recalled. “Venus was a great athlete, Serena was just a normal girl, her head just above the net. She could walk on her hands around the tennis court, but at the time there was really nothing special about her.”
Pyles changed Serena’s forehand grip and her serve, powering up her baseline game and toughening her up by drilling the ball straight at her. Over the course of months, the improvement came.
Richard takes credit for running off gang members, telling the stories of how he lost teeth in fights and defended an old man whose walker was stolen by gangbangers, how he and the girls swept the court clean of hypodermic needles and other garbage. Whether the stories are gospel truth or exaggerated for effect, what’s indisputable is that the inhospitable territory of the courts softened as the girls improved and began drawing more notice.
“The city of Compton came in and resurfaced the courts, put in new nets,” Pyles said. “The guys outside the fence would say, ‘Man, leave them alone. They’re not going to get involved in any of the stuff in this neighborhood.’ ”
Eventually, the Williams sisters drew national interest, and with it a horde of coaches eager to entice them to their tennis academies. Rick Macci won the derby, persuading the entire family to move across the country. Williams delivered the news to Pyles after the girls played an exhibition match at the Forum. The Williams sisters were the opening act to a John McEnroe-Jimmy Connors exhibition, and when the girls’ match was over – Venus won – Williams told Pyles, “Looks like I’m moving to Florida.”
That was the last Pyles saw of the girls for many years. A few years back, while playing in Palm Springs at a La Quinta event, Richard Williams whistled him over. The girls, now much older, looked at Pyles with some vague recognition but no full awareness; they’d had dozens of tennis types proceed through their lives in the intervening years.
“Daddy collected a lot of unusual characters when we were living in California, people who had played tennis or had been around the game,” Serena wrote. “He was like a magnet for the tennis fringe.” (A later characterization in Serena’s book is a little more generous: “The small network of hitting partners and tennis lifers he’d assembled to support our training.”)
It’s no longer called East Compton Park. The name was changed to East Rancho Dominguez Park a few years back. In 2004, the five-acre landscape just four blocks east of the 710 freeway underwent a major transformation. There’s a gymnasium there now, backed up against those two tennis courts that, these days, any rec player would be satisfied with.
The Compton of the 1980s is passing into legend via films like “Straight Outta Compton.” The city today still suffers from violence and allegations of government corruption. But a general decrease in crime – Compton saw 17 homicides last year, down from 1991’s 87 – has residents eating at outdoor restaurants and allowing their children to play in public parks with a sense of safety long missing. A new civic website, comptonup.org, highlights the distance between the city of today and the city of N.W.A.
“People think of Compton as a very dangerous place,” Mayor Aja Brown told the L.A. Times recently. “But when we look at the statistics and the feel of the city and we talk to people who live here, it’s a different city from 25 years ago.”
Jones retired several years ago and moved to nearby Bellflower, while Pyles picked up stakes and moved to Mesa, Ariz. He still competes in (and wins) men’s senior tennis tournaments, and he’s teaching the next generation of tennis prodigies. (Remember the name Sereniti Johnson, an 8-year-old now tearing up courts in the southwest.)
Pyles has no claim on the Williams sisters other than memory, and even that is fragile. His name doesn’t appear in Serena’s autobiography, and Richard Williams recalls him as James “Powers.” Richard, who had an eye on future earnings while his daughters were still in utero, had Pyles sign a contract forgoing any claim on the girls’ future earnings, promising him only a quarter. It’s a deal that Pyles laughed about, then and now. What else can you do?
“I never got my twenty-five cents,” he says. “Richard still owes me a quarter.”
Serena’s since had so many coaches that it’s impossible for Pyles to spot the fruits of his teaching in her game. But there’s an essential toughness to her, an attitude that formed on those courts and persists to this day. She lives her life off the court the same way as on: when someone hits straight at you, hit back harder. Richard Williams’ plan to raise his daughters in Compton might just have paid off after all.