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John Jeremiah Sullivan on Venus and Serena

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Aug 27, 2012.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member


    In an effort to stop having the same cyclical fights over the same people here, I'm hoping we can try to post more stories (and discuss them) that we are reading that aren't written by people whom everyone has made their minds up about already.

    Thus, I bring for your consideration JJS (one of the best mag writers working) on the Williams sisters.

  2. Cubbiebum

    Cubbiebum Member

    Excellent story. Written well with insights into two of the biggest sports stars of the past decade that I had never read before.
  3. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    I'm going to read this in print in the next few days. But mostly I'm going to think about how it would have been different if written by a writer that causes mass conflict on this message board. I already have made up my mind on John Jeremiah Sullivan: He's awesome and wrote my favorite celebrity profile ever, on Axl Rose.
  4. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member

    My thoughts:

    The article moved along pretty quickly and well -- once I had a chance to catch my breath after the first two sentences, which were 32 and 73 words long, respectively.

    But, I still don't really have any idea who the Williams sisters are. Nobody has ever seemed to capture them, at least in my opinion. Unless there just isn't that much there. Maybe it's me, but a lot of their thoughts and quotes, even after all these years, still seem like non-sequitors, giving answers but not saying much, or seeming unrelated or evasive as far as the questions are concerned.

    The most real parts of the article, it sounded and felt to me, were about the parents, and/or came from the half-sisters. Serena says that that threatening outburst against the U.S. Open umpire in 2009 "wasn't her." But all I got was the feeling that that unvarnished, unguarded, heat-of-competition, angry scene was more honestly her, unfortunately, than much of what she does outwardly present. So often, I get the feeling that the sisters and their father are just playing the media, building an image, etc. But to me, it's a shell.

    What was most revealing, and what seems most telling, and perhaps, impacting on the attitudes and approaches of Venus and Serena, is the fact that they are people who were born in the 80s but raised, apparently specifically and intentionally, with a '40s and '50s mentality with regard to their race and the way others -- specifically whites -- might see them.

    It's just not necessarily an accurate approach for the time frame in which they were born and have lived, and it sadly, has fostered and exacerbated an us-against-the-world attitude that is probably unnecessary and is so off-putting, especially given all the success, privileges and, frankly, the good life that they've been blessed to enjoy.

    I think many of the slights they seem to live with and the feeling they have that someone is out to get them, in a game they've dominated and has done nothing but benefit them, have been largely manufactured as a result of the referenced life-long "belief and training."

    I've done some coverage of pro tennis and the Williams sisters, and I think I could like them -- if I could get to know them. Unfortunately, I've never felt like anyone really knew them. I don't really feel like Sullivan got to, either, and so, we're left with a fairly standard and common, if well-written, profile of them.

    Or, perhaps more fully and truly, I found it to be a profile of their parents and their influences, beliefs and attitudes.

    Based on what we know, Venus and Serena Williams are just tennis players, and, as their father apparently dubbed them long ago, celebrities. That's it.

    That's too bad, though, because I believe they could be so much more, to so many more, if they allowed it.

    Even some simple, honest questions and heart-felt answers to them would help, like: 1). Did or has Richard ever actually done anything to help any of those Crips gang members, now that his little celebrities have made it?

    Or, 2). What are their thoughts about Yetunde? Her murder was a true, traumatic event in the life of the family, not something manufactured or trumped up by Richard Williams, and I understand about privacy and the fact that this would be a tough topic. But if willing to open up about it, the sisters would go a long way toward improving the perceptions of their humanity, relatability, approachability and real-personability.

    These are the things that, as someone who is familiar with and has read much of this stuff before, seem to me to be lacking in most stories, including this one, about the Williams sisters.
  5. Cubbiebum

    Cubbiebum Member

    The insights I got came more so from the author's observance while with them, especially with Serena in Paris.
  6. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Good post, WT. I had similar thoughts. I was stunned the sister's death was glossed over in one sentence. I thought the best part was the unscripted moments with Serena, the Jack Daniels, the walk to the take out place in Paris where she's speaking French and English seemlessly. I thought those were real moments and the rest of it was standard profile fare. I think Sullivan is one of the best mag writers alive, so my expectations were high for this and it only partially delivered.
  7. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member

    Thanks, Double Down.

    It was a good effort by Sullivan, but could have been something more. The sisters tend not to give people that opportunity, though, for anything more than what they decide they want to give.

    In interviews with them, I almost never get the sense that the reporters are in control of the conversation. Rather, it seems that the sisters are.

    And they tend to hint at things, tantalize with possibilities, but then, don't give opportunities to follow up, or else, the reporters themselves are hesitant and don't try to do it themselves, either because they don't want to do it in front of others in gang-bang press settings where most of us get the majority of our access to the sisters, or else, just out of deference to the sisters and the fact that they might not want to expound on something like their sister's death, or really, anything meaningful, including, even, more on their fashion interests and design talents, and how, in the midst of their tennis careers, has that really been fostered and developed?

    It's like, they just don't do that, and reporters stop themselves short of what they really want, often without the Williamses doing or saying anything to make it happen. Venus and Serena, to me, are potentially among the most amazing stories and most interesting sports figures out there, but I've never gotten the sense that anyone has really gotten them figured them out.

    I also predict that, one day, the sisters might, in fact, actually return to Indian Wells -- if for no other reason than to show that they are the ones who are accepting and forgiving, and willing to let bygones be bygones, etc. It would be good for the image, make for good drama (all part of celebrity) and would feed the family's tendency toward arrogance and sense of their right-ness about things and their need to do all things only on their terms.

    The thing is, they would probably be appreciated, even loved on, for such a gesture, and I actually think it would be a good thing, for all involved, for the sisters to make a return instead of focusing so much on how they "don't need" the people at Indian Wells. If they follow that train of thought, well, the sisters really don't "need" anybody...

    A couple other thoughts:

    Serena really ought to re-think her condescending, broad-stroking attitude toward retirement-aged people. Tennis gets much of its support and goodwill from that audience, and, whether she realizes it yet, or not, she will one day be among that crowd.

    Also, just for the record, I've never believed, either, that there was any match-fixing going on when the sisters played each other. It's always been clear that they don't like to be on opposing sides of the net in real, public competition, and it's just as clear, based on results, that they love to be on the same side. I can understand that, and have never begrudged it. They're sisters, and at their best together, and that's a good thing.
  8. Elliotte Friedman

    Elliotte Friedman Moderator Staff Member

    Really looked forward to this piece, and was kind of disappointed. Very little new stuff.

    Apparently, Venus is hugely respected because of her willingness to take some important stances in private meetings. I'd like to hear more about that.
  9. UPChip

    UPChip Well-Known Member

    Given the times, his description of the gold medal match against Sharapova made me a little squeamish, but boy, the sense was there. I didn't see that match, but I saw a couple others and thought to myself, "Serena must be pissed off because she is just thrashing everyone she sees out there."

    That's part of why, I think, the Williams sisters have not morphed into the "Grandes Dames" of tennis even though they've been on the scene for comparatively forever. (both sisters' first Grand Slam final was against Martina Hingis, who is six months younger than Venus and has been retired for nearly six years). They (well, especially Serena) never 'mellowed.'

    A very good read — the detail about Serena being more interested in playing Wimbledon or the French than the US Open was interesting.
  10. Lugnuts

    Lugnuts Well-Known Member

    I thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted more.

    As someone who's covered the Williams sisters at various events over the years, I had some personal biases going in....( Venus is mostly a sweetheart, and Serena can truly be a diva... ) However, after reading this, I like Serena more than I did. I think it's possible she's changing. She seems more mature. I love how she admits the books are just for show.

    If I were to profile Serena, I think I'd try to delve into her relationships (Ratner) and her relationship with tennis. I know Serena has other interests (clothes) and went through a phase where she viewed herself as more of a fashion icon than tennis star. But late in her career, it appears she's coming back to her love of tennis.

    I've definitely seen the booing. It royally sucks. To see a white crowd at an American event actively cheer for some random ________ieva and boo a Williams in a match is nauseating.

    My favorite part of the article was when he took us through how the idea for the story came about.. Their decline.. And then what it necessarily became... Their reemergence. It's true: They are what America has right now in tennis. Oracene nailed it with that quote about the Olympics.

    I took my daughter to Arthur Ashe Kids Day on Saturday, where the organizers featured "some of the top up-and-coming stars in American tennis." I looked at Mr. Lugs and said, "This is what we've got? We're screwed."

    A small nit to pick with the author... What does he have against genetics? It's so clear to me Venus and Serena were gifted with athletic genes from both parents. The author seems to question that Richard contributed anything genetically. As a parent, I'm floored by the power of genetics on a daily basis.
  11. Versatile

    Versatile Active Member

    This feature suffered one major flaw: It ran as the cover story to the New York Times Magazine.

    As a sports feature on the Williams sisters, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved a lot of the description Sullivan provided and thought his analysis of Oracene Prince was the best I've read. His skepticism toward Richard Williams also stood out. WriteThinking was correct: The best parts of the piece were focused more on the parents than the daughters. I didn't have a problem with that

    But it didn't reach the standard of a Times Magazine cover story. There wasn't enough new, and there wasn't enough on the bigger picture.
  12. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    I wonder, though, if that doesn't cut both ways. I mean, a lot of us are familiar with the fascinating origin story of the Williams sisters. Should we expect New York Times Magazine readers would be equally familiar? The Magazine is one of those rare publications that can write a 5,000-word story about the debt ceiling or taking a cow from birth to slaughter one week, then write about the Williams sisters the next and expect their readership to embrace both. I wonder what the percentage of NYT readers remember the details of the Indian Wells stuff. I feel like it suffers more from the lofty expectations placed on it by Sullivan's byline. Which is to say, it's a solid double down the line for him, when you typically get on your feet and clap your hands, expecting a home run.
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