Contributed by Will Rice
No park is alike. Their histories and geographies vary across a spectrum stretching from preserves encompassing entire mountain ranges and cultures to wrought iron plaques on the edge of a highway commemorating Vermont’s first successful rutabaga harvest. The latter may appear obscure and underwhelming to most, yet it is the local parks and greenspaces that receive the most visitors each year. Few desktop backgrounds and coffeeshop walls will display images of their rickety swingsets, overgrown walking trails, and duck ponds, but their effect on our lives is nothing short of profound. This is especially true in urban areas where access to recreation areas can be few and greenspace is a high-priced commodity.
To that end, for two sisters from Compton, California the value of local parks can not be overstated.
In the late 1980s, Richard Williams began taking his daughters Venus and Serena to the parks around their city. In this way, he was not unlike most fathers. Their experience however, was far different than the average. In his memoir, Black and White: The Way I See It, Richard speaks to the lengths he had to go to in order to ensure the tennis courts at his local park were safe for his daughters:
In December 1985, alone, I got the worst Christmas gift I ever received. In my continuing effort to get the gangs to stay away from the courts, I got into a fight with six or seven gang members. To this day, the details are hazy, but I do remember when I woke up that ten of my teeth were missing from being kicked in the mouth…To this day [I] wear my “toothlessness” as a badge of courage.
Richard dragged himself home, nursing broken bones and emotional horror. He would return to the courts eventually, once scaring the gang members away with a shotgun and finally, in a last act of desperation, physically wrestling a gang leader. To gain access to his family’s park, Richard put his life on the line. It was that important. In his words, “It had taken two years and almost destroyed my body and my spirit. But in that moment, none of that mattered. What mattered was the courts were ours.”
Venus and Serena began playing tennis at East Compton Park and other local parks, nearly every day. Serena explains the importance of their childhood in Compton in the sister’s 2005 book Venus and Serena: Serving from the Hip:
Venus and I spent our childhood in Compton, California, which is about twenty miles outside of downtown Los Angeles. A lot of people talk about Compton as a pretty tough place with drug dealers and gangs. But most of the people who live there work very hard to make ends meet. Our lives in Compton were normal, and we called it home. My mom was a nurse, my dad ran his own business…Venus and I were a lot like the other kids our age, except that we had an unusual passion for a game called tennis…
We went to the local park, where grass grew in the cracks of the asphalt courts and there was so much broken glass and drug paraphernalia on the courts that we started each practice by sweeping them off. The conditions may not have been the best, but these courts became our second home. We practiced for several hours a day, most days a week, year in and year out, never losing sight of our dream.
Their practice would pay off. In January 2017, just over thirty-one years after their father got his teeth kicked out in a fight for court access, Serena overcame Venus in the final of the Australian open to claim her record twenty-third Grand Slam singles title and the sister’s combined thirtieth. Together they are responsible for fourteen Grand Slam doubles titles, five Olympic gold medals, and 1,525 professional victories.
Through it all, they have never forgotten the public places that launched their careers. They have continually paid their successes forward to their hometown. Recently the two founded local a resource center for those affected by trauma and violence and, in 2016, the sisters returned to Compton and East Rancho Dominguez County Park, formally East Compton Park, to help dedicate new tennis courts in their honor. Standing on the courts where she first learned to serve a tennis ball, Venus told the Los Angeles Times:
This has always been our roots and always will be. It makes us proud…You always remember those places, like where we went to elementary school, the courts we practiced at, even our old home. And just places you used to go. And of course things change over time. Places move. Shops close. Streets change. But it’s still the same place.
The same place. How beautiful is that? They say we can never go home, but we can always go back to our parks. They don’t move. They don’t turn into tanning salons or KFCs. They remain. For tennis or backpacking, the utility is of little matter. What matters is that they are ours.
Photo courtesy of Edwin Martinez/The Bronx via Wikimedia Commons