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A Ringing Endorsement
Rick Reilly
September 21, 1998
There's the damn doorbell and you're still in your hangover and you just know it's those annoying Jehovah's Witnesses. So you fling the door open to ask them if they'd mind coming back next century, and who do you see standing there but Venus and Serena Williams, their beads bouncing, their braces gleaming, wanting to know if you have a minute to chat about the Lord.
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September 21, 1998

A Ringing Endorsement

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There's the damn doorbell and you're still in your hangover and you just know it's those annoying Jehovah's Witnesses. So you fling the door open to ask them if they'd mind coming back next century, and who do you see standing there but Venus and Serena Williams, their beads bouncing, their braces gleaming, wanting to know if you have a minute to chat about the Lord.

"At first people are a little shocked," says Venus and Serena's mother, Oracene, who has taken them door-to-door since they were babies. "They want to talk about tennis, but we'd rather talk about the Bible."

You don't normally get the world's No. 5-and No. 19-ranked women tennis players leaning on your buzzer, but these are the Williams sisters of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and they haven't been within a shuttle flight of normal in years.

How many world-class tennis players were kept out of junior tournaments by their father? How many millionaire sisters have only one friend—each other? How many wear skintight, cutout tennis dresses that could make an abbot snap a rosary? How many can say they speak French and are learning Russian and Portuguese? How many sit down at a press conference and challenge reporters to look up the derivation of words? (Last week's word: ghetto.)

The Williams sisters are cocky and insular. They're also gorgeous, rich, smart, polite, gifted, well-spoken, huge and improving like mad, and they'd definitely like to get you some reading materials, if you're interested. "We go to rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, everywhere," says Oracene. "People slam doors on us," says Serena, "but that's their problem. We don't take it personally."

They do take it seriously, 4� hours every week, including the time spent writing letters and cold-calling people. At last week's U.S. Open, Venus, 18, made it to the semifinals and Serena, 16, won her second Grand Slam mixed doubles title in a row, but the work they think is most important is serving up the ways of the Witnesses to other players, coaches and their families. They rush the locker room with their pocket-sized Witness books, pamphlets and copies of The Watchtower magazine. If the player doesn't speak English, they get her a book in a language she does speak.

So far, they haven't won a point. "I'm not aware of any I've converted, no," says Serena. But as their mother always says, "They might slam the door this time, but next time it might stay open."

Witnesses don't sing the national anthem, say the Pledge of Allegiance, accept blood transfusions or celebrate holidays, including Christmas, or their birthdays. They believe that Christ died on a stake, not a cross, and that exactly 144,000 people will go to heaven. They believe that the man is the head of the household and the woman is the "weaker vessel," a belief that gets a little shaky when you see 6' 2", 168-pound Venus blow her women's-record 125-mph serve by some shivering Slovak.

The only problem is that the head of the Williams household, Richard, isn't a Witness, which helps explain why he smokes like a tire fire (a definite Witness no-no) and worships graven images (himself, whom he calls King Richard). "Well," says Serena, "everybody's different."

Some people in tennis wish the entire Williams family would fall down a very deep well followed closely by a very snug lid, but the truth is, the Williams family is the best thing to happen to women's tennis since the scrunchee. Women's tennis has always had more victims than a Red Cross shelter. It's full of young girls with great backhands and facial tics. Mary Pierce needed a court order to keep her dad away. Jennifer Capriati's father threw her to the pros at 13. Just last week, Croatia's Mirjana Lucie showed up at the Open after fleeing her homeland just to escape her allegedly abusive father.

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