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kottke.org posts about Rod Lyons

Vintage Photos of Venus & Serena Playing Tennis as Kids (1991)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2021

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids

Venus & Serena Williams as kids playing tennis

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is home to a collection of photographs taken by Rod Lyons in 1991 of Venus and Serena Williams practicing tennis at the ages of 12 and 10 on a tennis court near their home in Compton. Their father Richard is in the photos as well, coaching his daughters. Patrick Sauer talked to Lyons about the photos for Smithsonian Magazine:

“Where I was sent to shoot an up-and-coming tennis player was interesting because [the sport’s] ’70s [to] ’80s boom was over, so [tennis] wasn’t that popular overall, and you certainly didn’t see Black people in Compton out there playing. But other than that it was no big deal,” Lyons recalls. “I got there and started taking pictures of two young sisters named Venus and Serena, 12 and 10, taking lessons from their father, Richard. The practice session was disciplined and intense. Richard was really coaching ‘em up that day, but he wasn’t dictatorial, and [he] treated his daughters with kindness and respect.”

There’s another photo of the sisters from 1991 in this NPR piece, as well as some stories from locals about the Williams family:

Barbee was a 21-year-old limo driver and part-time tennis coach when Richard Williams invited him to train with his daughters.

“Tennis was a passion,” he says.

Barbee was a tennis prodigy himself, so when he faced Venus and Serena on the court, he had finally met his match.

“Man, it was unbelievable,” Barbee says. “Never seen nobody that good. It was something I’d never seen before in my life.”

Venus wasn’t even a teenager yet.

Training meant hitting hundreds of balls with enough force to break the strings on their racquets.

“Every other day, I was restringing my racquets,” he says. “My shoes, once a week. A hole right in my foot of my shoe. Used to tape them up.”

Here are still more photos from 1991 and you can find a photo of the sisters posing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at Sports Illustrated.

King Richard, a biopic of Richard Williams produced by his daughters, takes place during this period of time, is now out in theaters and on HBO Max, and is getting great reviews.