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Williams sisters' off-court troubles

SERENA is upbeat now. If anyone asks about her status, she says she has no idea where she's ranked in the world tennis listings. The rating doesn't bother her, she explains. After all, everyone still thinks she's number one.

On the eve of Wimbledon fortnight, Serena Williams and sister Venus are determined that the extraordinary run which brought them 10 grand slam titles is about to recommence. There have been distractions - romantic entanglements, parties, commercial launches - and there has been tragedy, but the sister act is backin control.

"Tennis-wise, I want to win tons more grand slams," Serena says. "If I do, I definitely do think I'll be the greatest. I guess you have to say it the way it is. I see myself becoming that."

If world-class sport is about focus, then the professed hopes of the Williams sisters represent a remarkable renewal. Last year, a surreal episode threatened to derail their tennis careers. The murderof their half-sister in a notorious American ghetto left both women stunned, too bewildered to conjure their usual magic.

"I haven't really coped yet," Serena admits. "I'm trying to figure out how to cope with it. But not a day goes by when I don't think of it."

Venus, too, has been badly hit this season, both by injury and by her sister's death. She has suffered a strained stomach muscle, and knee surgery that left her hobbling on crutches. Grief-stricken after the murder, Venus even questioned her own priorities.

"You begin to realise that there are so many things in life that are more important than hitting a ball over a net," she said.

In September last year, Yetunde Price - the 31-year-old kept her mother Oracene's maiden name - was shot once in the head as her boyfriend Rolland Wormley was driving her through the Compton suburb of Los Angeles.

The irony is startling. Yetunde was killed within a mile of the bullet-scarred tennis courts where the young Venus and Serena first learned to play.

Details of the murder remain elusive, with rival theories crowding in to make up for the lack of verifiable fact. Wormley, who himself had street gang connections, says the killing was random, and that he saw flashes and heard shots and drove away as rapidly as he could.

"Once I get to Long Beach Boulevard, I see the back window is shattered," he told one American newspaper. "I look to the right and say, 'Baby, are you all right?' There was blood everywhere."

The killing took place in an area of Compton controlled by a gang known as the Southside Crips, a group implicated in the murder of rap legend Tupac Shakur. Richard Williams, father of the two tennis stars, once said he had moved his young family to the area to prepare them for life's struggles. Live in "the worst ghetto in the world", he reasoned, and you will make enormous efforts to get out.

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Yetunde, however, found she could never leave the 'hoods behind. She had a serious of calamitous relationships behind her but remained proud, refusing to accept handouts as her younger sisters prospered, and only accepting money if she could work for it within the Williams tennis empire.

Two men have been arrested and charged with Yetunde's murder, but some observers feel close probes should be made of Wormley's own gang links. Jeffrey Johnson, Yetunde's first husband, alleges Wormley was in the Mac Mafia Crips gang, and had been at a gang gathering that day. Was the bullet which killed Yetunde really intended for him?

Even after her death, Yetunde's past is bubbling up to create potential trouble, and a vicious custody battle is now underway for control of her three children. Yetunde's second estranged husband, Byron Bobbitt, a 17-stone former prison inmate, claims Oracene has effectively kidnapped the children he had with Yetunde.

"These are my kids and I want them back," he told the Daily Mail last week. "The Williams family has never liked me and now it's like they've got this major kidnapping conspiracy going on. They have just scammed me."

While Jeffrey Johnson sees only advantages in his son growing up within the Williams entourage, Bobbitt has launched legal action to try and prise his two children from Oracene. In return, she points to Bobbitt's record, noting that Yetunde filed a violence complaint against him in 1997, alleging he threatened her with a knife and assaulted her.

THE continuing legal tussle over the children has clearly added to the Williams sisters' off-court woes, but tennis observers, however, say other distractions may be of their own making. Both women are routine A-list guests at celebrity parties. Serena is widely thought to harbour acting ambitions, and has been rumoured to be dating Hollywood director Brett Ratner.

She laughs and denies romance. As a devout Jehovah's Witness, Serena explains, such activity is out of bounds.

"We don't believe in dating unless you're going to get married," she says. "I've never dated anybody. I have some really good men friends but I believe in no sex before marriage. No fornicating. Stuff like that."

As Wimbledon approaches, too, Serena has other concerns that show how much the modern world of tennis has changed. While her rivals talk of working on their backhands, Serena is giving interviews about the launch of her own fashion business, called Aneres - her own name, spelt in reverse.

Serena Williams is putting her troubles to one side,and showing exactly why Wimbledon's selectors have seeded her in first position despite her recent run of bad form. Sisterhood, again, is the bolster for an overwhelming self-belief.

"My sister Isha put it best," Serena says. "She said something like, 'You're a queen so you should have the best. You're a princess so you should get everything you want.' I thought: 'You know what? You're right.'"

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