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CNN PEOPLE IN THE NEWS
Profiles of L.L. Cool J., Venus and Serena Williams
Aired September 18, 2004 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, he's a rap music pioneer, movie star, and a main stay in pop culture.
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MIMI VALDES, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "VIBE" MAGAZINE: No one has had the longevity as L.L. Cool J., no one.
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ANNOUNCER: His voice grew out of the mean streets of Queens.
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L.L. COOL J., RAP STAR: And rap was like a way to kind of be strong.
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ANNOUNCER: But years of success didn't always bring happiness.
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L.L. COOL J.: You know I was making plenty of money, but I wasn't even thinking about -- I was spending it all. I was just blowing through it.
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ANNOUNCER: Beyond the rap star image...
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SIMONE SMITH, WIFE: Well, he's really not a ladies' man. He's my man.
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ANNOUNCER: Hip-hop master, L.L. Cool J. Then, the sisters of center court with a combined 10 Grand Slam titles.
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SONJA STEPTOE, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, "TIME" MAGAZINE: It's a level of power and finesse and athleticism that tennis has never seen.
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ANNOUNCER: But before they could beat the competition, they had to beat the streets.
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RICHARD WILLIAMS, FATHER: I wanted them to be in a neighborhood that didn't have no other choice but to pull themselves out themselves.
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ANNOUNCER: Tennis superstars pursuing interests outside the game.
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SERENA WILLIAMS, TENNIS STAR: My goal as acting is to make it to the Academy Awards.
VENUS WILLIAMS, TENNIS STAR: I love to play tennis. But off the court, I also like to be Venus Williams and not be Venus Williams, professional tennis player.
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ANNOUNCER: The question nagging them now are they still driven to play tennis.
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JON WERTHEIM, SENIOR WRITER, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: People somehow get a bad feeling of somehow they're shortchanging tennis.
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ANNOUNCER: Holding court with Venus and Serena Williams. Their stories now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Hi, welcome to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. Rap music, whatever your feelings about it, it's one of the most powerful and influential forces in pop culture. Week after week, hip-hop tops the radio charts. And now one of the true pioneers of rap is back with his eleventh album, "The Definition." In an industry where careers can often be clocked with an egg timer, L.L. Cool J. has survived and succeeded for nearly 20 years. Here's Kyra Phillips.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Monday night, L.A.'s House of Blues, people lined up for the man nicked Uncle L, the future of the funk.
L.L. COOL J.: We're going to make some history, baby. Are you ready?
PHILLIPS: Rap artist, L.L. Cool J., has been making history for almost two decades. In a business where careers last months not years, he's been dropping hits since the Reagan administration.
VALDES: No one has had the longevity as L.L. Cool J., no one.
PHILLIPS: Now, he's trying to reach the top again with his latest album, "The Definition."
L.L. Cool J.: It is really a forward-thinking and progress record, sonically. It feels right.
PHILLIPS: He stepped into the spotlight at just 16 years old with his trademark kangal hats and giant gold chains. And he's made the transition from rap icon to movie star.
L.L. COOL J.: You've got to give me a chance, honey. I have to express myself creatively.
I kind of look at guys like Leonardo DiVinci, the great artist and inventor and scientist, in that I like to be able to do more than one thing.
PHILLIPS: But behind the image of the hard as hell rapper known as Ladies' Love, Cool J. is a man. Todd Smith, 36-year-old father of four, who's married to a woman he started dating in 1987.
S. SMITH: People probably look at him more as a ladies' man, but he's really not a ladies' man. He's my man.
L.L. COOL J.: I'm a person that cares about whatever he does. So if you look at father, actor, rapper, the root is the same even though the branches may go off in different directions.
PHILLIPS: The roots of L.L. Cool J. were planted in Bay Shore, Long Island in 1968. Born James Todd Smith, the first and only child of Ondrea Smith and her husband, James. Todd sang in the church choir. He was in the Boy Scouts and he played football.
ONDREA SMITH, MOTHER: He was like, "Ma, is my uniform clean?" He would take his uniform and put it in the washing machine, wash it. Whatever he loved, he, like, to be good at it and take care of every aspect of it.
PHILLIPS: Todd's parents had a stormy relationship. His mother left his father when Todd was four and they moved in with her parents in St. Albans, Queens, a place where Todd's love of music grew.
O. SMITH: The Temptations were on. Stevie Wonder was on. The Four Tops was on. And he just had music all his life.
PHILLIPS: But in his autobiography, Todd details how his parents' relationship went from stormy to explosive. Late one night in 1972, his father shot his mother after she returned home from work. KAREN HUNTER, CO-AUTHOR, L.L. COOL J.'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: She's running through the kitchen door and the shots ringing out and hitting the refrigerator. And she's getting hit in the back and then the legs.
PHILLIPS: Todd's grandfather was also shot during the attack. Four-year-old Todd witnessed the shooting and recalled the event in his song, "Father." Though badly wounded, both Todd's mother and grandfather survived. They didn't press charges, telling Todd later that it was for his benefit. His father moved to California after the incident.
In his autobiography, Todd also says he was abused as a child. He says a boyfriend of his mother's routinely beat him, often while Todd's mother was at work.
L.L. COOL J.: I dealt with a lot of, like, child abuse and I dealt with a lot of drama as a little kid.
O. SMITH: My son reached out to me and I confronted this person and then, it was just over, period.
PHILLIPS: Todd found solace in writing rap songs.
L.L. COOL J.: Rap was like a way to kind of be strong, you know. It was like an opportunity to, like, escape that.
PHILLIPS: Todd rapped wherever he could, in school yards, on street corners, and at block parties at The Rock, on Farmer's Boulevard, a Queen's landmark.
CUT CREATOR, L.L. COOL J.'S DJ: The first show we ever did was at a place called Benjamin Franklin High School for, you know, a little high school party. And the stage was the lunch tables and we didn't get paid. We got a -- whole lot of phone numbers, but we didn't get paid.
PHILLIPS: The 14-year-old was becoming a staple on the rap party scene and adopted a cool new name.
L.L. COOL J.: My friend's name was Playboy Mikey D. and I was the Ladies' Love Cool J. And we was just two kids that just wanted girls to like us. That's all. It ain't even that -- you know it ain't even that deep.
PHILLIPS: With rap starting to emerge as a commercial force, Cool J. was eager to land a record deal. After months of rejection, he focused his attention on the only place that hadn't turned him down.
RUSSELL SIMMONS, CO-FOUNDER, DEF JAM RECORDS: When I first met L.L. Cool J., he was a little skinny kid and he didn't look anything like the big voice. He didn't seem as confident as the voice he exuded.
PHILLIPS: Record mogul, Russell Simmons, and his producer partner, Rick Rubin, signed the Ladies' Love Cool J. to their brand new label, Def Jam Records on one condition.
L.L. COOL J.: When Rick was ready to sign me, Rick was like well, Ladies' Love is cool but how about just L.L. I was like whatever. It could have been whatever he wanted it to be, you know, Jethro. I'd have still made the album.
PHILLIPS: The newly anointed L.L. Cool J.'s "I Need a Beat," was the first release in Def Jam history. The song sold more than 100,000 copies.
L.L. COOL J.: When I first heard my song on the radio, I was kind of -- I was in front of the game room on Farmer's Boulevard in Queens and saying -- you know, it was nighttime. I was staring at the glow of the morning on the street and just saying to myself I like this.
PHILLIPS: When our story continues, L.L. Cool J. becomes the 16- year-old king of rap and spends his money royally.
L.L. COOL J.: I remember just sitting in front of the accountant, you know, and just saying I want a Benz. You know I've just got to get a Benz, man. I've got to get a Benz. I need a Benz.
ANNOUNCER: We now return to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): In 1984, 16-year-old rapper L.L. Cool J. struck gold with "I Need a Beat." He'd emerged from the streets of St. Albans, Queens, to become one of the hottest new stars on the rap scene.
SIMMONS: L.L. Cool J. came along looking like every kid in the street, the kangal hat, the Adidas sneakers.
PHILLIPS: With just one hit single under his belt, L.L. Cool J. decided to make music his career. He dropped out of high school.
L. L. COOL J.: I'm going to school and I'm dealing with some jealous fruitcake who's upset because I'm doing well or living my dream. And it was like, it just, it just seemed likes I needed to commit.
O. SMITH: My mother really was against it and my father. And I said, but you have to let him have a chance because he was so young. I said, if he didn't make it, he would still be young enough to just go back and pursue another career.
PHILLIPS: But L.L. Cool J. was no one-hit wonder. He followed up "I Need a Beat" with the single "I Can't Live Without My Radio."
He quickly became the biggest solo artist in rap and helped bring the music out of the inner city and into the suburbs.
SIMMONS: Mainstream kids in Beverly Hills embraced hip-hop. Mainstream kids in Middle America embraced hip-ho.
PHILLIPS: In 1987, L.L. Cool J. released his second full album, "Bigger and Deffer," featuring the single "I Need Love." The track was a milestone in rap history. It was the genre's first ballad.
L.L. COOL J.: I had people that told me it was Christmas music. When I did "I Need Love," I had people telling me that this will never work.
VALDES: It was a really interesting time because of course, the girls, you know -- we were all in love. We loved it. But the guys, they were confused. They didn't understand what he was talking about.
PHILLIPS: L.L. had found love in real life as well. In 1987, he met Simone Johnson, a fellow Queens native.
S. SMITH: The first time I met Todd was April 19.
L.L. COOL J.: It was Easter Sunday.
S. SMITH: And it was in front of my aunt's house.
L.L. COOL J.: I saw a friend of mine out on the block and...
S. SMITH: He was outside talking to my cousin, Jerry.
L.L. COOL J.: ...he introduced us, and this is Simone. I said how are you doing, how are you doing.
S. SMITH: He was like, I didn't see you before. You know back then, I had a real, you know slick mouth. So I was like, well, I haven't seen you before.
L.L. COOL J.: I was like OK. You got a phone? She said yes. I said, "Write your number down."
S. SMITH: And remember when he walked away, I was like oh yes, he has a cute butt.
PHILLIPS: L.L. Cool J.'s growing fame meant money, lots of it. He says he spent his money as fast as it came in, thick gold chains, brand new wardrobes, and fast European cars.
L.L. COOL J.: Yes, I remember just sitting in front of the accountant, you know and just saying, before -- this is even before -- I want a Benz. I've just got to get a Benz, man. I got to get a Benz. I need a Benz. I got to get a Benz. He was like we're going to get you a Benz. We're going to get you a Benz. And he was...
S. SMITH: When we were 18 and he bought me this big name ring that sat up like this high. And it said "Mo" in diamonds and I was like where am I going to wear this too.
L.L. COOL J.: I mean I was getting on elevators and old ladies were holding their purses and like, moving away from me because they thought I was, like, a hoodlum and I was a millionaire.
PHILLIPS: But while enjoying his success and excess, L.L. Cool J. faced a new challenge to his career. The trend in rap was shifting from his happy-go-lucky party songs like "Jingling Baby," to a harder edgier sound.
JONAH WEINER, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "BLENDER" MAGAZINE: You saw the emergence of Gangsta rap, which was pretty much personified by bands like NWA out in the West Coast, incredibly violent, graphically violent music.
PHILLIPS: Needing a new direction, L.L. Cool J. released "Mama Said Knock You Out." It was his most aggressive work to date, a rough, streetwise album but without excessive violence.
SIMMONS: L.L. Cool J. was never a Gangsta rapper. He never aspired to be a gangster. He lived in a tough neighborhood and he was tough. But he was never a Gangsta.
WEINER: He didn't need to be in a car doing drive-bys with a sawed off shotgun to be tough. He could just stand there with his shirt off and just scream in your face.
PHILLIPS: Hollywood took notice, as well. L.L. Cool J. took acting jobs in movies like "The Hard Way" and "Toys."
L.L. COOL J.: The food keeps touching it. I like military plates. I'm a military man. I want a military meal.
VALDES: It was sort of the beginning of the whole kinds of, you know, hip-hop sort of going into this other arena.
PHILLIPS: L.L. Cool J. was at the height of his career. But behind the scenes, he was at his lowest. L.L. says after years of free spending, he had little to show for his multi-platinum success.
L.L. COOL J.: I actually had to kind of take a look at my taxes and look at what was going on. And I worked myself into a jam. I kind of realized that, you know, you can't spend -- you know you can make millions, but if you spend millions, you won't have millions.
PHILLIPS: His personal life was also in turmoil. Though he and Simone had two children together, the responsibility of being a father overwhelmed him.
L.L. COOL J.: I felt like I wasn't going to be young no more. I felt like Simone was just, you know, picked up, you know, 315 pounds off the bench and just put it in my back pocket and told me to run around the track 10 times or something.
S. SMITH: I couldn't deal with it no more, so then we split up.
PHILLIPS: When our story continues, L.L. Cool J. tries to put his life back together and fights to stay on top of the rap game.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): In the early 1990s, L.L. Cool J. was at a professional high. His album, "Mama Said Knock You Out," had gone multi-platinum. His acting career was taking off but personally, the man also known as Todd Smith was reassessing his life.
L.L. COOL J.: You know I was making plenty of money but I wasn't even thinking about -- I was spending it all. I was just blowing through it.
PHILLIPS: Smith changed his financial team and kept a closer eye on his money.
L.L. COOL J.: I learned to tithe, which is I give 10 percent of, you know, all of my income, the gross to the church. I learned to invest. I started getting into, you know municipal bonds as opposed to, you know, jewelry.
PHILLIPS: Smith was also getting his personal life in order. He and Simone Johnson, the mother of his two children, had split up for more than two years. Smith decided to change that after his mom gave him a blunt piece of advice.
O. SMITH: And honestly, "I said Todd, if you don't marry Simone, she's the only one that's going to put up with you, because you're just an artist."
PHILLIPS: Todd took his mother mother's words to heart. He and Simone rekindled their relationship. Soon after, Simone became pregnant with the couple's third child.
S. SMITH: It was just one day when he woke up, he was like, you know what, we need to get married before Samaria (ph) -- before the baby gets here because, you know, we had the other two out of wedlock and we need to do this right. And I said OK.
PHILLIPS: In August, 1995, nearly a decade after their first meeting, L.L. Cool J. and Simone Johnson became Mr. and Mrs. Todd Smith.
L.L. COOL J.: She has benefited me probably more than I've benefited her in a lot of ways.
S. SMITH: The one thing that we do have is a friendship as well as a marriage, and that's one of the ways that he's grown.
PHILLIPS: With his personal life in order, L.L. Cool J. branched out in his professional life. He landed the lead role in a sitcom, "In The House." L.L. COOL J.: I knew you guys were going to find a way to screw up this evening. I'm not going to let you make these kids miss out on a big donation.
It's like a family vibe. There's a lot of love around here. I'm having a great time. I'm really happy.
PHILLIPS: The show ran on NBC and UPN for four seasons. But his work in television didn't keep him out of the recording studio. In 1995, he released the album simply called "Mr. Smith." It featured the Grammy Award winning track, "Hey Lover."
VALDES: "Mr. Smith" was a big surprise because there was a lot of question of whether or not he can still be relevant. But he was able to come out and kind of surprise everyone by again adapting to what's going on.
L.L. COOL J.: I've grown. That's how I've maintained, by allowing myself to evolve, allowing myself to grow and quite frankly, really loving what I do and believing that I'm the best and that I can be the best in whatever I do.
PHILLIPS: Movie parts also poured in. From 1998 to 2002, L.L. Cool J. appeared in nine films, including roles in "|Halloween H2O," "Deep Blue Sea" and "Any Given Sunday."
L.L. COOL J.: I don't get the ball, I don't get my stats, I don't get my money. And I like getting my money, coach.
PHILLIPS: In 2003, L.L. Cool J. got his biggest acting role to date, the lead in the movie, "Deliver Us From Eva." For the first time, he used his given name in the credits.
L.L. COOL J.: I just wanted to expand on it a little bit and let people in. I'm not going to switch from L.L. Cool J. I don't think that calling myself James Todd Smith is going to convince people that I'm any better of an actor. I think that the work speaks for itself on the screen.
PHILLIPS: Last month, L.L. Cool J., the rapper, released his 11th album, "The Definition." It debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts. His latest effort is a return to the club anthems that made him a superstar.
L.L. COOL J.: I've been having some of the most exciting parties around the country recently, you know, in the past year, year and a half. And I just wanted to make the kind of music that plays at those parties.
VALDES: It seems like with the first single, he's gone for the club, which is cool, but that's what everybody's doing, you know. And seeing L.L. kind of do the same thing is a little disappointing because we don't expect that from him.
PHILLIPS: But the album's first single, "Headsprung," has been a hit. It's in its 11th week on the Billboard Hot 100. WEINER: Hip-hop has a violently short attention span. People will fall in love with a star one day and the next day you've never heard from them again. It's miraculous that L.L. has been in the game for going on 20 years.
PHILLIPS: But L.L. Cool J. insists his main priority is his family.
L.L. COOL J.: You know, taking care of your children, taking care of, you know, your responsibility, making sure that they understand so you have to equip them with the tools but they've got to climb the mountain themselves. If you're setting your kid to climb the Mount Everest of life unequipped, ill-equipped, then whose fault is that?
PHILLIPS: L.L. Cool J. has spent a lifetime climbing his own mountains. A journey that's seen him scale the heights of the music business while trying to stay true to himself.
L.L. COOL J.: You just have to pursue what you pursue and be who you are. And that's, I think, the thing that, through the grace of God, has allowed me to continue on. My confidence in me, my confidence in God, my faith in me, my faith in God, and then not being afraid to just do what I want to do from the heart.
ZAHN: In addition to music and means, L.L. Cool J. is also involved in fashion. He's coming out with his third line of clothing, an upscale collection appropriately named James Todd Smith.
ANNOUNCER: Coming up, they're glamorous, sophisticated and tennis phenoms.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am a competitor and I take that seriously. And I compete hard.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think in my business, it's important that you believe that you're the best.
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ANNOUNCER: But are they still a dominant force in the game they once ruled? Serving up the Williams sisters when we return.
ZAHN: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. For the first time since 1998, neither Venus nor Serena Williams won a Grand Slam singles title. Injuries and some seriously bad calls on the tennis court have certainly not helped, but there's more to it than that. The once invincible duo now seems vulnerable somehow. Their many interests off the court have led to questions about the sisters' dedication on the court. Here's Kyra Phillips.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): This is Venus Williams. She's 24 years old. She's a fashion designer and she owns her own interior design firm.
V. WILLIAMS: I like to further myself. I like to explore myself and if I'm not absolutely very, very busy, then I get bored.
PHILLIPS: This is Serena Williams. She's about to turn 23. She, too, designs her own line of clothing. She's also a model and an actress.
S. WILLIAMS: I don't know how I do it. I just -- I have this energy. I don't know where it comes from. I don't sleep.
PHILLIPS: Oh yes, they play a little tennis too. The Williams sisters are growing up. They're gone from teens in beads to babes in boots. Sibling sensations who rose to the top of the tennis rankings.
STEPTOE: It's a level of power and finesses and athleticism that tennis has never seen.
PHILLIPS: They're a sister act who once seemed to be a single unit, Venus and Serena. But sisters who have blossomed into two independent young women on and off the court.
V. WILLIAMS: Everyone has dreams and I think I've been fortunate to be able to go after a lot of mine.
S. WILLIAMS: Every year I grow and I've grown 10 years in the past year.
PHILLIPS: Venus and Serena Williams were born in 1980 and 1981. They're the youngest of five daughters. Oracene and Richard Williams raised their girls in Compton, California, a notorious section of Los Angeles, known for the gang wars and drive-by shootings.
R. WILLIAMS, FATHER: I wanted them to be in a neighborhood that didn't have no other choice, but to pull themselves out themselves. And they was able to do it.
STEPTOE: There are drugs, there are gangs. And in the midst of it were these two little black girls with braids all over their hair and hair ribbons, who had long legs and long arms and incredible tennis talent.
R. WILLIAMS: As for tennis courts in Compton? Those tennis courts was rotten, tore up, no nets, and then when they did put up some nets, they put up steel nets, of all things. You heard the net go boom and you'd think another gun was here. Watch out! So it was just really terrible.
S. WILLIAMS: I just think it just was able to prepare me, in a way, for the situations in the future. I'm able to get through them without no problem. Nothing really bothers me anymore.
PHILLIPS: While the surroundings were tough, Richard Williams had his daughters' destinies planned out.
WERTHEIM: These two were brought up to be tennis stars.
STEPTOE: He had a dream before they were born that this is what he wanted. And it's almost as if he willed it into being by sheer dint of his convictions.
PHILLIPS: By age 10, Venus Williams had become the No. 1 ranked 12 and under player in Southern California. Her talent was apparent on and off the court.
RICK MACCI, FORMER COACH: I went to Compton in 1991 in the spring. And Venus asked to go to the bathroom. And she walks out the gate. And for the first 10 feet, she walks on her hands. And then the next 10 feet, she did backward cartwheels. And I'm sitting there going; I've never seen anything like this. And I told Richard, I said, "You got the next female Michael Jordan on your hands." And he put his arm around me and he said, "No, brother, man, I got the next two female Michael Jordans on my hands."
PHILLIPS: That quest for unparalleled success was constantly reinforced.
MACCI: It was almost like breakfast, lunch, dinner and we'll be one and two in the world. This was almost like an arrogant, cocky, as a matter of fact, this is going to happen, there's no doubt. This is what was being talked about at 10:00, 11:00, 12:00 all of the time.
PHILLIPS: It was a vision Richard Williams was more than happy to share with the world.
STEPTOE: In those days, I think we all sort of said, yes, Mr. Williams, OK, I'll write that down. And in the back of your mind you're thinking, you know, what's he talking about?
WERTHEIM: Tennis has this rich history of these tennis fathers from hell. This wasn't an example of that. This was the tennis father from outer space.
PHILLIPS: That reputation grew when Richard Williams did something virtually unheard of. He didn't allow his daughters to play in junior tournaments.
R. WILLIAMS: When I look back and see all the kids now who came along with my daughter, no, I did the right thing. And I would say about 84 percent of those kids who came along, they no longer play tennis. But at the same time, they don't go to school either. I made the right decision.
PHILLIPS: Instead, the girls practiced with hitting partners and played only practice matches. Their training, however, was no walk in the park. MACCI: Richard, one time said I want Venus to play a match today with a boy who's the biggest cheater in your academy. So I put 12- year-old Venus on a court with some 17-year-old boy, one of the best players in Florida. There was about 40 kids on the fence watching the match. Any time the ball was on the line, the guy cheated her. Venus got 6-0 -- got beat 6-0. And that's Richard Williams. He wants his daughter's skin to get thicker.
STEPTOE: He trained them to be tough. He said, "They're going to be people at these tournaments that are going to call you nigger. They're going to cheat. They're going to do everything they can. They're going to scream when you serve. They're going to try to make you think the balls are out. And you better be tough."
PHILLIPS: At the same time, the Williams sisters were being taught tennis wasn't the only thing in their lives.
MACCI: He always treated them like kids. And he always talked to me about that. We're not going to practice today. We're going to the mall.
ORACENE PRICE, MOTHER: The priorities first would be to God, and then family. And then everything else is secondary.
PHILLIPS: In 1994 after going three years without playing in a competitive tournament...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Venus Williams.
PHILLIPS: ...14-year-old Venus Williams made her professional debut, winning her first match before losing to the second ranked player in the world.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody saw Venus Williams put a scare into this top five player and said, you know, maybe this Richard Williams isn't so crazy after all.
PHILLIPS: By 1997, Serena had joined Venus in the professional ranks. And the sisters made an immediate splash.
STEPTOE: Their outfits were colorful. They were colorful. Their hair was different. It was colorful.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were covering balls that no player would even try to get to. And the power, even at age 16, their power was nothing that anybody had seen before.
PHILLIPS: In 1997, 17-year-old Venus reached the finals of the U.S. Open in her first appearance in the tournament. Two years later, 17-year-old Serena won the 1999 U.S. Open, becoming the second black woman ever to win a Grand Slam singles event. And 2000 saw Venus win her first singles Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.
V. WILLIAMS: Well, I guess we've kind of won two of the last four Grand Slam singles in the last year. So that's pretty good. And we want to take this one, too. Either one of us, that'd be nice.
S. WILLIAMS: It's our ambition just to take over tennis. And we're trying. We're doing a decent job of it now. And hopefully, we can keep it up.
PHILLIPS: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, the Williams sisters' power their way to the top and face controversy when they square off against one another.
ANNOUNCER: Now back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): By the beginning of 2001, the Williams sisters had won three of the last five grand slam tournaments. They'd gotten gold at the Olympics: Venus in singles, together in doubles. And their sights were set on reaching the top of the tennis rankings.
S. WILLIAMS: Obviously, I would love to be No. 1.
V. WILLIAMS: There's no way that I'm going to say, well I'm happy at No. 1, I like it here. Definitely I'm trying to move forward.
PHILLIPS: But striving to be the best would mean more head to head battles between the sisters, which would prove to be difficult and controversial. Growing up, the sisters spent countless hours, playing and practicing on the court together. However, playing competitive matches against one another was something their father did not encourage.
MACCI: It'd almost be like a street fight, you know. It would be brutal. And he didn't even want that type of confrontation between the sisters.
R. WILLIAMS: I never would have allowed it when they was little kids because I think it's a good way to tarnish the family. To be honest with you, I didn't want them playing each other head to head on the WTA Tour either. Or should I say the -- what is it? The Williams Tennis Association?
PHILLIPS: There was no mistaking the emotional strain the sisters experienced when they did face one another. Most notably in the 2000 Wimbledon Semifinals, where Serena walked off the court in tears after losing to her big sister.
WERTHEIM: Venus told me the story once about how growing up in L.A., they would share a room and Serena refused to go to sleep before Venus. So Venus had to wait until Serena fell asleep because Serena would get scared in the night. How in the world is she going to get up to beat this player, to really get aggressive and really find the competitive instincts to beat this player on the other side of the net, this player who she once had to wait until she was asleep before she could then fall asleep.
PHILLIPS: In fact, the sisters' matches against one another were often lackluster at best, awful at worst.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They both are played the same game. They both are power players, which usually leads to a lot of unforced errors. Also though, they warm up with each other before their matches. So it's not as though one's got a secret weapon the other hasn't seen that she's ready to unleash.
PHILLIPS: It added up to questions about the sisters' willingness to play one another. "The National Enquirer" even printed a story that alleged Richard had predetermined which sister would win their 2000 semi-final match-up at Wimbledon.
V. WILLIAMS: Come on, it's "The National Enquirer." I mean God. I'm having -- the next thing you know I'm going to be pregnant by some Martians.
R. WILLIAMS: If you do that, we're going to have -- you're going to lose the respect of one of your daughters. No, I would never tell my daughter to lose or to win under no circumstance. But I would tell my daughter this here, when you're out there, do the best you can do.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think the matches are fixed. And I don't think they ever were fixed. But I think people see how the level of play dropped so dramatically when they compete against each other. And you also have the Richard factor to contend with.
PHILLIPS: Richard Williams seemed to get more outrageous as his daughters became more successful. He bad-mouthed other players, held up signs, and danced at tournaments. He supplied the press with a seemingly endless string of outlandish comments and stories.
STEPTOE: Well, I think Richard is a modern-day PT Barnum. There's no question about him. He's full of bluster.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was a man who just doesn't distinguish between fact and fiction. And he's buying Rockefeller Center for $3.9 billion and he owns thousands of buses. And he has a seat on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. And I'm not sure if it's sort of controversy, so much as it's amusement.
R. WILLIAMS: The only thing I had a tendency of saying is what I believe in. And I noticed when Mohammed Ali said what he said, people said that guy's crazy. When any black person come along in this country and say anything, he's crazy. Well I tell the world today I'm not crazy. I tell you one thing, I have plenty of money though, but I'm not crazy.
PHILLIPS: In September 2001, the sisters got the chance to show the world they were on the up and up with their first head to head match up in a Grand Slam event at the U.S. Open. The match was sloppy, but hard fought, Venus beating her little sister.
But bragging rights in the Williams family would soon belong to Serena almost exclusively. Starting in 2002, she won four straight majors, an accomplishment dubbed the Serena Slam, beating her older sister each time.
WERTHEIM: For those nine months, for those four slams, you could make a pretty case it's never been a dominating player. So it was really funny to sort of watch this transformation where clearly they're uncomfortable playing against each other. But if you sort of look at the results, it was all Venus in the first half. And then once Serena got over the hump, she's been rolling over Venus ever since.
PHILLIPS: Serena and Venus Williams were numbers one and two in the world. Their father's prophecy had proven correct. Two girls from Compton had taken over tennis.
R. WILLIAMS: I've been dreaming about this all my life. And when it happened, I wasn't ready yet again. I mean, they keep catching me off guard. It's just such a thrill.
PHILLIPS: But when PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, injuries and outside interests raise a new question: how much do the Williams sisters still care about tennis.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.
PHILLIPS (voice-over): By the fall of 2003, the two best women tennis players in the world had the same last name, Williams. They had multi-million dollar endorsement deals. They were held up as role models for young kids.
S. WILLIAMS: It makes no difference where you play as long as you get out there and play. Verb, it's what you do.
PHILLIPS: They were bonafide superstars.
WERTHEIM: There's this sort of nagging sense that if the Williams sisters aren't there, it serves as the same affect of, you know, if Tiger isn't playing in a PGA event. It sort of shrouds everything with an asterisk.
PHILLIPS: But the Williams sisters have had their share of difficulties in the past year. In September, 2003, Yotundi Price, their half sister, was killed in a shooting in Compton, California.
S. WILLIAMS: We're doing. We're all doing and I think that's the best way to describe it. You know, we're so close as a family. We've always been really close. My sisters are my life. And just I couldn't live without them. They're like the blood that's in my body. And so it's always tough.
PHILLIPS: The sisters have also battled injuries that kept them off the courts. Venus and ankle and abdominal strain.
V. WILLIAMS: It's not exactly normal to be playing tennis nonstop for 20 years in a row for five hours a day and this is the reason the injuries do happen. So I take it all in stride.
PHILLIPS: Serena suffered a knee injury that sidelined her for eight months.
S. WILLIAMS: It was really weird in the beginning but I took to it really well. I took to it really well.
PHILLIPS: The Williams have always pursued activities away from tennis, something that was stressed to them by their parents.
O. PRICE: That's all-star been a major focus of ours for the transition out of tennis because you're only a star for so long and then what do you have next.
R. WILLIAMS: And I think people think that we're supposed to take tennis as if it's the last thing on earth. And I'm supposed to go, I'm going to hit you over your head if you don't get that -- no, I'm not. I might hit you over your head if you don't read that book now.
PHILLIPS: Venus now owns V Starr Interiors, a design firm, which did the set for "The Tavis Smiley Show" on PBS, and has worked on New York City's bid for the 2012 Olympics, designing rooms for the Olympic village.
V. WILLIAMS: Maybe you're working with a small space or there's all kinds of challenges that come up, and it's kind of the same way in tennis. It's always changing. It's never the same and it's always new challenges.
PHILLIPS: Serena Williams has begun pursuing an acing career appearing on "Law and Order: SVU."
S. WILLIAMS: When they carry you on your shoulders to the stage and shine a spotlight on you, what do you call that?
PHILLIPS: She also has her own fashion line, Aneres, which is Serena spelled backwards.
S. WILLIAMS: I draped this one dress and like OK, I need to you make this dress with all this different fabric. OK (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I'm going to work on it in England. I'm going to tell you what to buy, buy the tulle for it. And so it's really exciting. I really enjoy it.
PHILLIPS: However, the sisters' continued absence from the courts and their obvious enjoyment of life away from them raised questions about how much they still cared about tennis.
WERTHEIM: Tennis has had all these players where all they've done is eat, drink, sleep, breath tennis and here come these two sisters and they're reading, they're trying to take up foreign languages, they travel with their laptops, their fashion and acting and people somehow get a bad feeling, somehow they're shortchanging tennis or sort of treating it as a lark.
PHILLIPS: Those doubts were strengthened by the sisters' lackluster results when they did play. Serena hasn't won a Grad Slam tournament since Wimbledon 2003, Venus since the 2001 U.S. Open. And both were bounced out of this month's U.S. Open in the quarter finals.
WERTHEIM: I don't think you can make the case Venus is among the best players anymore. I mean it's just -- the record sort of speaks for itself. I think as for Serena, it's a lot of question about her dedication and her motivation. I think if she wants to be, she's still head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
PHILLIPS: Both sisters insist tennis is still their passion.
S. WILLIAMS: I love nothing more than walking out on the court and just having the whole crowd scream and clap and begin to play. I mean to me, it doesn't get better than that.
PHILLIPS: But the game is not the only thing in their lives, something they're proud of and something the past year has taught them to embrace.
V. WILLIAMS: Everyday, I try to be me and in doing that, I hope that I can be successful on every plain that I try for.
S. WILLIAMS: And I realize that you know, anything can happen on any day and everything could be all over in a moment. And you've got to live your life to the fullest.
ZAHN: Serena and Venus Williams, once the top tennis players in the world, are now ranked 10th and 12th respectively.
That's it for this edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. Coming up next week, behind the scenes of the circus that soars beyond the big top. It is the sights and feats of Cirque de Soleil. I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for joining us. Have a great weekend.
ANNOUNCER: For more celebrity news, pick up a copy of "People" magazine this week.
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