What were they like? Coach recalls Venus, Serena’s youth in Delray

From the streets of Compton to the courts of Wimbledon.

That’s how most people tell the story of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams.

But that leaves out one important stop: The formative tween years the sisters spent on the pothole-covered hard courts at Pompey Park, honing their staggering fusion of speed and strength in Delray Beach before they went pro.

» READ: Police say Venus Williams had green light in fatal crash

How did two girls from crime-ridden Compton, Calif. end up in South Florida?

They were recruited by Rick Macci, a man with a tennis academy off Linton Boulevard in the 1990s.

The family packed up and landed in Delray Beach in 1991. That same year, German Steffi Graf beat friend and rival Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina at the All England Club for the Wimbledon title. It was the longest match in the event’s previous 15 years. As Graf dominated the world circuit, the Williams sisters ruled the local courts.

While they trained at Macci’s tennis academy, the two were everywhere tennis was in town.

Venus would be the first of the sisters to appear on Wimbledon’s center court in 2000, and this month all eyes were on her again as the 37-year-old attempted — unsuccessfully — to land a sixth Wimbledon trophy and an eighth Grand Slam victory in the effort.

The recent run left Macci this week recalling their time in Delray Beach.

Tennis coach saw fire in sisters’ eyes

The Williams’ fierce tenacity blossomed as an 11-year-old Venus and 10-year-old Serena trained in Delray Beach.

“What blew me away about Venus and Serena was the burning desire,” Macci said. “Almost like ‘I got to get every ball, I’m not letting anything get past me.’ “

And playing at the modest, if not downright shabby courts at Pompey Park was the way their father Richard Williams kept them grounded and reminded them of their “roots in Compton,” Macci said.

Back then, Pompey Park’s tennis courts had no water fountains, no lights and a court surface littered with scratches and holes, said William “Bill” Murray, who coached at the park and trained the Williams sisters in the 1990s.

The city paid Murray to run a free tennis program for inner-city youth, a program that many jeered until black tennis stars blossomed on the run-down courts at Pompey Park.

“You got to remember,” Murray said. “Back then, tennis was a white man’s sport.”

The venue was different then, Murray said from the sidelines of the resurfaced courts at Pompey Park, but Venus’ moves at Wimbledon were reminiscent of those she employed when she first came to Delray Beach at age 11.

“She’s still strong,” Murray said. “And you have to remember, she fought her way to the finals even with everything going on.”

Gardens crash weighs heavily on Venus

As Venus Williams moved through the opening rounds, she was still coping with her role in a Palm Beach Gardens crash that killed 78-year-old Jerome Barson, when his wife drove into Williams’ SUV. Police say Williams legally entered the intersection, but an investigation into the circumstances and who is at fault is ongoing.

She also contends daily with Sjogren’s syndrome, a brutal autoimmune disease that can cause debilitating joint pain.

But none of that shows up on the court, though, Macci said.

As Macci sees it, Venus and her younger sister Serena, a two-time Wimbledon champion who is pregnant and opted out of the tournament this year, got that strength and toughness from their father.

“Even in Delray, half the time (Richard Williams) wouldn’t want new balls, he would use bad balls so the girls would have to run faster and bend lower,” Macci said. “He’d throw a beer bottle in the back of the court just so there’d be broken glass.”

It was unorthodox, as was Richard Williams’ decision to keep the girls out of junior tennis tournaments during their time in Delray Beach. Their father, Macci said, declared they wouldn’t compete until they each made their professional debuts.

“That’s not the recipe I’ve trained anybody else … ” he said. “But look what they’ve done. How can anybody really question anything?”

Richard Williams kept his girls off the public courts, and would scare off onlookers toting cameras for fear they’d study the sisters’ playing styles, Macci added.

Aside from the tight-knit, mostly lower-income folks living near Pompey Park, very few people knew the girls trained there, Murray said.

“They kept it all very private,” Murray said.

The sisters rarely acknowledge their time in Delray Beach. When they returned to the coastal city for the Fed Cup in 2007, hosted at Delray Beach Tennis Center, Serena Williams briefly gave the town a nod.

“I grew up playing here. Played on these courts a lot,” she said in a news conference.

Delray holds plenty of childhood memories

Serena Williams, now pregnant with her first child, visited Pompey Park and the Delray Beach Tennis Center in March with fiance Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit.

Word reached Murray that Serena Williams was visiting only as her driver pulled out. He chased down her car, shouting her name, he said.

“She told them to pull over and jumped out of the car,” he said smiling. They hugged, snapped a photo and talked for half an hour, reminiscing about the days when the girls practiced six days a week and spent the seventh playing at Pompey Park.

“There was no particular reason for the visit,” Murray said. “She said she just wanted to walk down memory lane.”

Venus and Serena Williams weren’t the only tennis stars to grace the local courts, Murray said..

Althea Gibson, the first person of color to win a Grand Slam, played in Pompey Park. As did Arthur Ashe, the only black man ever to win a singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.

Even now in his retirement, Murray spends as much time on those tennis courts as he did back in the 1990s. When new players show up, Murray regales them with the names of those who have gone before. And he keeps an eye out for who will be next.

This week, he practiced with Micayah Porter, a skilled 13-year-old who Murray swears will win the world over.

Spending hours in the summer heat at Pompey Park may be exhausting, but not without reward.

“Venus and Serena played here,” she said. “It makes me think I can follow in their footsteps.”

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