Royce Johnson’s original Interview: Female tennis greats cast a spell

Few people really know the true story of “King Richard” until Netflix releases its documentary “The Two of Us,” which premiered last month. In the film, Meagan Good (“Think Like a Man”) and Omari Hardwick (“Being Mary Jane”) recount the story of the power behind one of the most celebrated families in tennis.

Long before Serena Williams and Venus Williams ruled the courts, Grand Master Manuela Maleeva served as the first to nab a major title in 1978.

However, it was not until her title run was over that she actually conquered world tennis. She took home all of the tournament’s major titles — claiming all three majors and the AT&T National tournament. During her career, Maleeva won 22 singles Grand Slam events.

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For the longest time, the two names “Serena” and “Venus” were bandied about when discussing the sport’s “fiercest” competition. Maleeva, however, said that nickname never bothered her. In fact, she was actually happy for her little sister’s accomplishments.

“I liked winning because it made me equal. I enjoyed watching them, too,” she said. “We were always competing with each other and we never got along at the beginning because we were born two years apart and we both wanted to be the best. But I love watching Venus so much because it drives me to be better.”

Maleeva’s first big victory was at the 1974 French Open. And although she did claim the title again at the U.S. Open in 1976, that year was her most memorable.

“By the time the ’76 French Open came around, both Venus and I started to play each other more than once in the same tournament,” she said. “It was like we were mothers on tour. Each year, my birthdays, I’d hear that Serena had to be home by 4. By the time I got to France, I was a night owl.”

Maleeva added that her late uncle Manuela was a force in her success. “My uncle, him and my father, they were like professors to me,” she said. “I had wonderful support from all three.”

The documentary also reveals the hardships that have always been associated with the Williams women.

“My grandmother would always pull me away when Venus and Serena said, ‘You’re no good enough to be on the tour or to be at a Grand Slam.’ She always made me do my homework, it was the toughest thing,” Maleeva said. “I want people to understand that no one is just behind the throne. We’re in a league of our own. And in case you thought I was a cold haired, 50-year-old, with trouble with my car, I’m really not that old, and it’s really not just Venus and Serena — we all respect each other.”

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