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Tragedy puts fame, fortune in perspective

Posted: Tuesday, September 16, 2003

From the time they were born, Venus and Serena Williams had two strong women mothering them.

One was their mom, Oracene. The other was their oldest sister, Yetunde.

If Oracene was at work as a nurse, or doing one of the thousand other things it takes to bring up five daughters, Yetunde took over the cooking and the discipline, keeping the girls in line and the house running.

Yetunde, Oracene's first-born from a previous marriage, was eight years older than Venus and nine years older than Serena. The thought of calling themselves half-sisters never occurred to them.

Yetunde Price's senseless death at 31 from a shooting Sunday in Compton, Calif., was a family tragedy that put fame and fortune in perspective. All the 10 Grand Slam singles titles Venus and Serena won, all their doubles titles, all their millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements suddenly seemed insignificant. The injuries that kept them out of the U.S. Open and could keep them sidelined the rest of the year were just as trivial.

''The shock and emotion have been overwhelming for the whole family,'' said Raymone Bain, Serena's publicist, who had become a close friend of Price over the past few years. ''They're all together now, leaning on each other, trying to come to terms with this. It's just a void that's going to be irreplaceable. I know it's going to take them a long time to recover from this.''

Price, who took her mother's maiden name, was ''the glue'' who kept the family together through her parents' divorce a few years ago and the swirl of life in the fast lane of pro tennis, Bain said.

''She kept everyone grounded,'' she said. ''I used to ask her where she got all the energy to do everything handling all of Serena's personal business, helping both the girls in so many ways, being a nurse, running a hair salon and always, always taking care of her three children first. She was amazing.''

When Venus wanted to quit with an abdominal strain during the Wimbledon semifinals, Yetunde was one of the sisters who marched into the locker room to tell her to get herself together and get back out on the court. Venus did exactly that and won, then put up a credible fight before losing to Serena in the final.

It's too trite to say Yetunde, the mother of children aged 5, 9 and 11, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's never a right time to be in Compton, a city of gangs and guns and drugs.

Yet Compton was home to all the Williams sisters when they were young, the bullets as common then as they are now. Venus and Serena spoke often of how they heard gunfire as they practiced on the cracked concrete courts, and how gang members from their neighborhood sometimes stood by to protect them.

A day after Price's death, former President Clinton was in Compton on Monday, not far from the shooting, for the dedication of a school in his name and to support Gov. Gray Davis in his fight against a recall. Neither of them spoke about the violence that is so common there, or about this latest loss of one of the city's own. No matter what happens in the election, nobody expects any change in Compton's annual death toll.

A man only a year older than Venus, Aaron Michael Hammer, 24, was arrested for investigation of murder and jailed without bail. Sheriff's deputies said he had ties to a gang but was not a member. They were searching for four other possible suspects in the slaying outside a house known to attract gang members and drug dealers.

What Yetunde Price, who lived 40 miles away in Corona, was doing there with a male companion, Rolland Wormley, 28, and what led to the shooting is still unclear and, perhaps, irrelevant to the Williams sisters and their family.

Venus was in New York when she heard of the shooting. Serena was filming a TV show in Toronto. Each immediately flew to Los Angeles to comfort each other and grieve with their other sisters, Isha and Lyndrea, and their parents.

They were all on the ''Oprah Winfrey Show'' last year, talking about their lives and reminiscing about their past, when Venus and Serena blurted out that they secretly hated Yetunde's cooking.

''You hated my food?'' Yetunde said, showing mock offense. ''That's not what you've been telling me all these years.''

Venus and Serena laughed and told her they just didn't want to hurt her feelings.

As close as Venus and Serena were growing up, there was a certain respect they had for Yetunde and a special bond with her. That didn't diminish as the years passed and the two youngest girls emerged as tennis stars. Nor did their success ever make Yetunde envious.

''She always was there to give encouragement to her sisters,'' Bain said. ''And one of the things she would not want them to do is to grieve to the point that they cannot do what they do best. Yetunde always wanted to see them win, see them succeed, no matter what the circumstances.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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