At the height of summer, Serena Williams, stacked and fierce, stood at Arthur Ashe Stadium as the U.S. Open tennis champion. The Williams sisters' daring play electrified the Grand Slam tennis tourney that turned into a triumph for the Race. But more than that, their success vindicated a trash-talking, enigmatic and brilliant black tennis dad:
Serena and her sister Venus are the children my dad not-so-secretly wishes he'd fathered.
Some dads turn to gambling or drugs to soften life's sharp edge. Others romance the bottle, or multiple women. Mine teaches tennis.
It may firm the thighs, but it can be an addiction no less intense than any narcotic.
At age 4, I could be seen in the tennis bubble during Canada's freezing winters, clutching a wooden tennis racket nearly as tall as I was. My brother and two sisters in tow, we were imprisoned on the court at our local country club in Edmonton with a hopper full of balls until five consecutive serves landed inside the white lines.
The warden, a 6-foot-2 bearded and light-skinned black man, towered over the court. Arms folded across his chest, my dad barked his self-taught theories on the significance of the perfect toss and grip. He cajoled, bribed and bullied us, all in the name of his grand scheme to chase down tennis glory with our tiny, sneakered feet.
Follow through. Keep moving. Get your racket back. Look at how ugly those girls on the tour are! With your looks, girls, you can have endorsements galore!
Tennis ruled our lives. My dad, Terrence, a computer analyst, and my mother, Serena (just a coincidence), an accountant who was a formidable enabler to Dad's addiction and a very good player in her own right, practiced nearly every day before or after work and certainly every weekend. We kids spent each waking moment outside school sweating through drills with my dad.
My sisters and I went through the motions in tennis while pursuing drama, art, and other interests, but my brother, Michael, the oldest, showed the most potential for achieving my dad's dream. He was a top junior player and the whole family toured the country to watch him storm the circuit--splashing a little color on the lily white events.
Dad spent his savings sending Michael to the Florida high school and tennis academy where Jennifer Capriati trained. Michael later attended the University of Kentucky on a tennis scholarship, then left school early to play on the satellite tour. After about a year on the tour, though, he hadn't won enough matches to earn him the corporate sponsorships he needed to pay his way. So he went back to school to finish his degree in accounting. Dad was satisfied that Michael had given his all and today he is very proud to be the father of a CPA at a Big Six firm.
That might have been the end to my dad's dream. But in 1993, my father made a decision that shocked us all: He abandoned his job and decades of experience as a computer analyst, took his life savings and moved down to Palm Beach County, Fla., land of retirees and tennis courts.
His plan was to start a tennis academy, a factory that spits out tennis champions. Just because his own kids failed him didn't mean he couldn't latch on to someone else's prodigy. So he taught computer science at a couple of local colleges to pay the bills and worked at recruiting several promising young tennis players to coach.
Unfortunately, each incoming tide leaves South Florida littered with tennis coaches looking for the next Chris Evert or Andre Agassi. Scheming, conniving and outright theft of the most promising young players abounds.
But my dad's spirit made us proud. With his eloquent speech and refined manner, he held his own in wooing the families of prospective Grand Slammers. Before long, he was connected. We met the Williams girls, who also live in Palm Beach County, and my dad became an acquaintance of Richard Williams, surely a kindred soul.
Still, five years later the academy had failed to take off and my dad went back to computers. But if you think he quit dreaming about tennis, that's just because you don't know my dad.
Now that he has split with Mom, at age 51, he has taken to speaking of the "new family" that he plans to have and how the kids are all going to be tennis stars.
He slips away several days a week after work to teach a few lessons. He's got promising students in the Bahamas and in Palm Beach. And he's snagged another family victim, my niece, Kamen, who is 6 and loves playing tennis with Grandpa (all of which makes my sister sigh and shake her head).
Though normally I tend to roll my eyes at my dad's bottomless fervor, I have to admit that as I watched the developing excellence in U.S. tennis this season, with Venus and Serena in starring roles, my heart beat faster. That could have been our family out there, livening (and coloring) up professional tennis. I get a vicarious thrill every time I see them pounding away at their opponents.
My brother and sisters and I are happy with the different directions we've chosen to take, but I am realizing now that tennis has been the glue that has sustained our closely knit family. Through tennis, we've seen the country, grown close to dozens of other families and learned the discipline and life skills that helped us to avoid drugs, violence and other childhood ills.
And though some might criticize tennis dads for trying to use children to achieve vicarious success, I see it differently. I see it as my father's greatest gift: every spare second of his time, his hard-earned dollars, all his hopes and dreams. We succeeded in our own way and I'm happy that a similar investment paid off for the Williams family.
As for Dad's addiction, I've begun to accept the fact that he may be beyond rehabilitation. On a recent visit, I tried to help him organize the study at his house. I peered at a Tennis magazine from 1988, and I tossed it into a pile of junk. His eyes burning with anger, he rescued the magazine and clutched it close to his chest.
"I might need that!" he said.