Oracene never wanted to live in Compton. A graduate of Eastern Michigan with a degree in education, she had dreams of being an R&B singer. Then she started having children; thereafter, she says, "my life ended." She worked as a private-duty nurse and refused to let the failure of so many others in Compton affect her daughters. "I never had the ghetto frame of mind," Oracene says. "When I first moved there I hated it. Where I was raised, we had trees and a house. It was nice. I was ashamed to say I lived in Compton. After a while I got used to it. But my mind was never in Compton. If my daughters said they couldn't do anything, I'd say, 'Yes, you can. You can do anything you want. Nothing is unattainable.' "
They all believed her, then and now. The oldest daughter, Yetunde, 26, works as an intensive-care nurse in Southern California. Isha says she plans to get an M.B.A. along with her law degree at Georgetown and then perhaps go on to medical school. Lyndrea, 21, is majoring in computer science and international business at Howard. "I was never comfortable," says Isha. "My family was never comfortable. We're not comfortable now. We're always seeking ways to push ourselves."
Of course, in tennis, positive thinking only takes you so far; eventually everybody must lose. This is the concept Venus and Serena have found most difficult to swallow. Last year's Wimbledon was a family debacle. After falling behind 7-5, 4-1 to Virginia Ruano-Pascual in a third-round match, Serena abruptly pulled up lame with a calf injury and retired, neglecting to shake Ruano-Pascual's hand. She showed no sign of injury, however, in winning the Wimbledon mixed-doubles title with Mirnyi. "I read later that she was so hurt," says Davenport. "She was getting her ass kicked. I thought she was a complete wimp about it. I played her [two days later] in mixed, and she was jumping for lobs."
Then Venus lost her composure after a series of line calls went against her in a quarterfinal match against eventual champion Jana Novotna. Venus had been pressing Novotna to her limit, but after a couple of adverse line calls she started to fall apart. "Why is this happening?" she cried. Venus cracked again at the 1999 Australian Open. In a quarterfinal match against Davenport, she was assessed an unprecedented—but legitimate—point penalty after some beads fell from her hair and bounded about the court. "This has never happened to me before," Venus told chair umpire Denis Overberg. She didn't win another game in the match.
"There's no question Venus is going to be a great player," Davenport says, but it's also clear that she and Serena have yet to demonstrate poise under pressure on the sport's grandest stages. Oracene refuses, however, even to consider the matter. "There's no such thing as pressure," she says. "As black Americans, that's all we've ever had. It's life. So where's the pressure?"
She's sitting in an overstuffed chair in the lobby of a posh hotel overlooking Rome. The issue of race, of course, would be a subtext for the Williamses even if no one ever spoke of it. No important black tennis player—not Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison or Mai Washington—ever carried himself or herself with the casual sense of entitlement that envelops Venus and Serena. "Most of all, we do our own thing," Venus says. "We do what we want. We're very different from everyone else, because we think differently."
Oracene keeps track. She notices whenever people take her daughters to task for cockiness. "It's like, Squish them down, they can't have that confidence!" Oracene says. "I teach my kids to live in reality: You're black, you always have to work harder—but you don't have to prove yourself to anybody. I don't expect you to, and I don't expect you to apologize. Ever."
Abruptly Oracene breaks into a wide smile. Her face shines in the soft lobby light. "It's like the Bible says: If someone is talking bad about you, be happy," she says. "I schooled the girls on the nigger issue. I said, You might get called that, and if you do, just say, 'Thank you!' I love it. You know, I am so sick of people saying the n word. Forget it. 'It's what you are! Say it! Go on!' Eventually when they see it doesn't bother you, they'll leave it alone. I can't wait for someone to say it. I've been planning on it."
Here's what it's like to be 18 years old and delighted with being alive. Venus pulls up in a shiny new Porsche coupe and sits down smiling at a sheltered picnic table in a park near the Williamses' house. It's just two days since her dominating win over Pierce in the Italian Open final—her second tour victory on clay in two weeks—and she's feeling quite sure that her time has come. "I'm trying to think of whom I should lose to and why," Venus says, "and I can't think of any reasons why I should."
She giggles some more, and it comes across as neither cocky nor overbearing. She's happy with her game. She's happy with being 6'2". "I like everything that I am," she says. "My mom always says, 'Can't you find something you don't like about yourself?' Actually, I can't. That's just the way I've always been."