Tennis is what made Venus and Serena famous, but it was their philanthropic work that took center court Dec. 2 at the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center in Ward 8.
The tennis icons served up “A Family Affair” to bring people together to combat violence and raise money for the Williams Sisters Fund that pays for the sisters’ joint philanthropic projects.
Money was also slated for the Yetunde Price Resource Center in Compton, Calif., where the sisters grew up. The center supports people who have lost loved ones to violence. The sisters named it in honor of their older sister who was gunned down in a 2003 drive-by shooting in their hometown.
“A lot of times you don’t know what your options are, and there are a lot of options,” Venus Williams told reporters at the tennis center. “There’s a lot of assistance, so we’re here to hopefully hold peoples’ hand through that every step of the way — long after the people stop visiting and the cards stop coming and the pies stop coming, there’s life to deal with — and that’s why we’re here.”
At the Dec. 2 fundraiser, the sisters took part in a panel discussion at the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center about violence that was moderated by ESPN cohost Jemele Hill.
A tennis exhibition between the sisters and local kids followed. With the exception of a brief news conference with the Williams sisters, organizers excluded media from the entire event.
The Southeast Tennis & Learning Center exposes kids to tennis and provides tutoring, life and computer skills, a library and positive reinforcement. The public center, which brands itself as a crown-jewel facility, holds 20 sanctioned tournaments a year and houses the George Washington University men’s and women’s tennis teams.
If the sisters had access to a similar resource when they were learning how to play tennis in Compton, it would have been “scary” because “we would have been so much better it would have been crazy,” Serena Williams told reporters.
To date, the 16-year-old center has served more than 10,000 District youth, according to its website.
The center’s president and founder Cora Masters Barry said the Williams sisters have supported it from the beginning.
“It’s been a love fest, ‘a family affair,’ since 1996 and they never deserted us,’ she told reporters. “We’ve just been family and the center was built in the same kind of community where they grew up and where they came out of … so it’s really very connected.” Barry said she hopes to expand the city-owned facility to 25 courts and to “make it a national training center.” The center opened in 2001.
The sisters landed in the District after having a remarkable year of their own.
Though she didn’t win a tournament in 2017, a resurgent Venus Williams, 37, reached the finals of several major tennis events — the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the year-end WTA finals.
“You have to show up so why not compete?” she said. “So since you have to wake up in life, give your best every single day.”
After defeating her sister at the Australian Open to win her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, Serena Williams, 36, considered by many to be the greatest athlete of all time, took the rest of the year off to have her daughter, Alexis Olympia. She said being a mom is an honor she’s still adjusting to.
“In the beginning, the crying was very difficult, but I’m just so happy for everything and every moment and I’m just loving it, she said.
Last month, Serena Williams tied the knot in New Orleans with Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit — Vogue magazine devoted an entire spread to their wedding.
Even though Serena Williams’ publicist didn’t get back to the AFRO about whether she’ll defend her title at the 2018 Australian Open, she did tweet Dec. 4 that she was heading to a practice session, which indicates she’s working hard to get back on the court.
Hamil Harris contributed to this article.