Saturday, March 9, 2019 - Gladys Knight watches Venus Williams and Petra Kvitova play in the 2nd round of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open)
Empress of Soul and Williams sisters’ superfan Gladys Knight has long been a tennis devotee. Not only does the Midnight Train to Georgia singer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and winner of seven Grammy Awards revel in watching the sport, she plays it often, too. BNPParibasOpen.com caught up with the Pips’ frontwoman in Indian Wells.
What is it about tennis that draws you to the sport?
I love the fact that it has the element of exercise, for me, because I need to keep it moving! [Laughs.] This game has helped me so much. The competition of it is something that I really respect. On top of that, what the players have to go through to get prepared, to get fit, the thought process. Am I going to hit it left, am I going to hit it right? All of those things are exciting to me. It’s just so fun to watch.
Can you relate to that? Because you’ve got to put in a lot of preparation when you’re recording, performing.
Absolutely. The preparation is just as strenuous in our industry. You’ve always got to be fit. As far as your material is concerned, you have to be very specific about who you’re performing for, where you’re performing. I’ve been blessed to travel all over the world. It’s been an amazing journey for me. Tennis, for some reason, brings all kinds of people together. When you look around at a tennis event, you wonder why the rest of the world can’t get it right. Nobody’s out there talking about this person, that person, where they’re from, how they look. That’s another thing I admire and respect about this sport.
I think I know the answer to this already, but who do you go out of your way to watch?
Now you know it’s got to be Serena and Venus. [Laughs.] I’ve been on those girls since they were knee high. The family connection that they have — it was the same in my family. My mom and dad, aunties and cousins, grandmothers. It’s a great thing to come together around that. They’re pushing you into higher plateaus because of their support. Their whole family is involved. Their mom was some player, too. She’s so laid back, Oracene. The public doesn’t know a whole lot about her. They know their dad, Richard. But they don’t know the strength of their mom. Ooohh, she’s got it going on. We’ve been doing this for many years, supporting each other. They come to my concerts, I go to their matches. That’s what it’s all about. Tennis is just an amazing journey.
Is Venus and Serena’s story underplayed?
Let me tell you one thing as far as family is concerned. That’s one of the things I love most, even though they are amazing athletes, is that it was a family affair. That’s how I got to be what I am and who I am today. I’ve been singing since I was four. Like them. They were just toddlers playing around on a tennis court. My mom was right there to teach me. She didn’t speak the language, but she taught me to sing Ave Maria in Latin phonetically. That’s the same thing that Venus and Serena’s parents did. You do it like this, you do it like that. They were respectful enough of their parents to follow those rules. Look at them now. I love these ladies. I think that’s the one thing that so many artists and celebrities have missed, that their parents sometimes see things a lot better.
They overcame the odds coming out of Compton, California, climbing to the top of this sport.
Absolutely. The same with me. I lived in Atlanta, Georgia. People were still marching, trying to have freedom. As we grew up, we came to know about those things. Because of our culture, sometimes when we go outside of our genre, our communities, you get teased. I know I did. I’m sure they did, too. Like the way they wore their hair. They teased them about it. We ain’t trying to be you — we just want to play tennis. Don’t tell me about beads in my hair! They were strong enough, respectful enough, to move to where people could be comfortable without really giving up their culture. I love those girls.