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September 21, 2003 -- COMPTON, Calif. - As the two most successful sisters in sports, Venus and Serena Williams have built their domination of tennis on family ties.

Their dad, Richard, was their relentless first coach; their mom, Oracene, follows them around the world and selected half sisters work as personal assistants to the Grand Slam champs.

But the murder last weekend of the girls' oldest half sister, Yetunde Price, put the spotlight on family secrets that suggest the Williams clan has many more layers than previously revealed.

Rather than a tight dynasty powered by two successful princesses, the extended Williams family is vast, disjointed and often dysfunctional.

The famous tennis sisters are among at least 15 children with some sort of relationship to Serena and Venus' mom or dad, The Post has learned.

When Richard and Oracene divorced last year after 23 years of marriage, the split appeared to have created a family inner circle, headed by Oracene, and an outer circle, to which Richard has been banished - and a whole host of brothers and sisters cut off from the inner circle for varying reasons.

Among the shunned, according to some reports, are Richard's daughter, who lives in a homeless shelter, and two of his sons from an earlier relationship, who have prison records.

Even some of those close to the family are unsure of the size of the Williams clan and how they are all related.

"There's been many people through the years asking about [who all their siblings and relatives were], and you could never get a straight answer from Richard," said Rick Macci, who helped coach Venus and Serena in the early '90s.

When the family first burst onto the world sporting scene, Richard and Oracene often spoke of how their love blossomed when they met at a bus stop in 1980. They married soon after.

What wasn't so widely discussed was that Richard was already a father of five, and Oracene had three daughters, of which at least two were fathered by a man with seven (or more) other children.

Venus, the older of the two tennis sisters, and Serena are the only children from Richard and Oracene's marriage. They grew up alongside Yetunde, Isha and Lyndrea Price, Oracene's daughters from previous relationships who took their mother's maiden name.

Yetunde's father was artist and writer Yusuf A.K. Rasheed, originally known as Joseph Bowman before he converted to Islam. He died two years ago.

It is uncertain whether Oracene was married to Rasheed, but friends say that when he turned to Islam, Oracene became a Jehovah's Witness - and her girls followed.

The sharp theological divergence made a split virtually inevitable and after Oracene and Rasheed separated, their two sets of kids drifted apart. Errol Franklin of Detroit, whose wife, Enomwoyi, is a half sister of Yetunde's (but not of Venus and Serena), admitted he couldn't explain who was still in contact with whom - although his wife attended Yetunde's funeral Friday.

"I don't keep up with it," he said.

WHAT is certain is that once Richard decided Venus and Serena could be tennis champions, they became his and Oracene's total focus.

While Oracene insisted her other daughters stay in school and embark on careers of their own - Yetunde was a registered nurse who became a beauty consultant, Isha is a lawyer and Lyndrea is a Web designer - she willingly helped Richard drive the tennis prodigies.

The three older girls became responsible for running the house, while Richard coached Venus and Serena and Oracene worked several jobs to pay their bills, she once said in an interview with ESPN magazine.

"Everybody knew what their role was," she said, adding that at times, some of the girls called her "Mean Oracene."

In an interview in the mid-'90s, Richard said he once disciplined Yetunde for not washing the dishes properly by packing all her clothes in a suitcase and locking her outside the house for the night.

"It started to rain. The poor girl was crying and crying so I made a deal with her. She could come back in if she agreed to one year of punishment - washing the dishes, mowing the lawn and working with underprivileged people," he said.

When the family decided to move to Florida to further Venus and Serena's tennis training, Isha and Lyndrea went, but Yetunde, 19 and already in college, opted to stay in Southern California.

She appears to have kept her distance from the family until just recently.

Although she rarely attended tennis matches, Yetunde opted to join her mother and regular spectators Isha and Lyndrea to cheer on Serena and Venus at Wimbledon this year.

But in interviews, Yetunde insisted that it be known that she had paid her own way to London.

"That just struck me as odd that somebody would say that," Macci said. "It put her sisters in a bad light."

Perhaps it was Yetunde's way of avoiding the ugly behind-the-scenes family feuding said to have occurred shortly after Venus and Serena began winning lucrative prize money and attracting rich sponsorships.

Macci recalls that after Venus got her first big endorsement deal with Reebok, distant relatives crawled out of the woodwork. "They wanted money," he said.

Scandals in the extended family would follow.

Two years ago, The National Enquirer quoted a Williams cousin and one of Richard's ex-girlfriends as claiming the result of the 2000 Wimbledon semifinal between the sisters was predetermined by Richard - an allegation dismissed by the family as well as tennis officials.

On Feb. 7, 1999, Oracene went to a hospital in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for treatment of three broken ribs. After first saying she had injured herself on a door handle, she told a sheriff's deputy, "I know you know what happened, but I am fearful for my daughters' careers."

When Sports Illustrated later asked her if Richard had assaulted her, she said: "It happened. I can't deny that. I would like to deny that, but I can't because it's the truth."

During another argument, Oracene alleges that Richard was armed with an airgun.

MEANWHILE, Yetunde put down roots in a simple house less than an hour away from Compton, the tough Los Angeles neighborhood her stepdad wore as a badge of honor as he promoted the amazing rise of Venus and Serena.

Yetunde, a 31-year-old divorcee, had three children: Jair, 5, Justus, 9, and Jeffrey, 11, and was engaged to a man from Compton.
It still hasn't been established what Yetunde and her boyfriend were doing outside a known drug haunt in her former neighborhood when they got into an argument early last Sunday morning. But the altercation ended with Yetunde being fatally shot. Police are still investigating.

Oracene and her daughters issued a statement calling Yetunde's murder "the saddest day of their lives."

And the road ahead doesn't look any easier.

Richard, Venus and Serena have all said at various times that it would be a mistake for the tennis superstars to play into their veteran years.

Now premature retirement, as a result of the tragedy, is a real possibility, tennis observers say.

For the first time in years, it seems, some members of the family have realized there are matters more important than tennis. Whether that brings this disjointed family together, or tears them further apart, remains to be seen.

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