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Pulling no punches

The Williams Sisters - From the Ghetto to Glory

4 out of 5

Muhammad Ali - Fifteen Rounds with the Greatest

Both by Hugh MacDonald

Inspirations series, pound;5.99, Argyll Publishing

3 out of 5

Popular memory constructs Muhammad Ali as the poetry-spouting charmer who became an icon by taking a stand against the Vietnam War and regaining the world heavyweight boxing title against huge odds.

Meanwhile, the Williams sisters are the subject of regular sniping about their surly demeanour, alleged fixing of matches against each other, and detachment from the sport that made them rich.

Hugh MacDonald makes it his mission to cut through this fog of nostalgia and ignorance, in his contributions to a series of easy-to-read books introducing inspirational figures.

The Williams book is the better read; MacDonald has obvious enthusiasm for his subjects and first-hand experience of watching them play.

The preface is a vivid eye-witness account of Serena's meltdown at the 2009 US Open, when she lost her semi-final for launching foul-mouthed abuse at a line judge. Get over the tut-tutting and see the bigger picture, says MacDonald. "When Serena roars at the US Open, she is protesting against an unfairness she has experienced throughout her life," he argues.

The Williams story is remarkable. They grew up in Compton, the Los Angeles suburb notorious for its Bloods and Crips gangs. As gunshots fizzed in the distance, the tennis courts had to be swept of syringes before the girls could practise.

In 2003, in their early 20s and with multiple Grand Slams behind them, the ghetto took a fresh and brutal grip of their now-privileged lives: elder sister Yetunde was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Racism has raised its head. Neither sister has played the prestigious Indian Wells tournament since Venus withdrew from a 2001 semi-final against her sister, citing injury. During the final Serena was barracked by what she likened to a "genteel lynch mob", and claimed to hear the n- word.

Their father and coach, Richard, is a compelling figure. A spinner of tall tales - once insisting he was going to buy the Rockefeller Centre - he has lofty goals, yet is not the pushy parent one might expect.

To this day, the two most successful women's players of their day will disappear from tennis for months to indulge passions for interior design, fashion, scriptwriting and their part-ownership of the Miami Dolphins American football team.

Their unwillingness to curry favour with the media and engage more with the women's tour is to be admired, argues MacDonald: here are two entrepreneurial young women whose unapologetic aim is not to be liked, but to do the things they like.

If the Williams book sets things straight, the account of Ali's life tries too hard to be balanced. MacDonald compares him to a double-sided coin, contrasting heroic Ali lore with cruelty to opponents, callous infidelity and bullying of those who challenged his brand of Islam.

Crucially, though, Ali transcended his sport to become one of the 20th century's greatest figures. The man's undoubted flaws need to be recorded, but the icon who inspired millions gets a little lost in the detail.


Hugh MacDonald is chief sports writer at The Herald. He started his career in 1972 with a journalism course at Edinburgh College of Commerce (now Napier University). He has worked for various newspapers and has been The Herald's chief sub and literary editor.

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