Venus goes for No. 1: superstar and her supersister dazzle tennis world.
WHEN Venus Williams won the coveted Lipton Invitational earlier this year, the tennis world reeled. Not since Althea Gibson won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 had a Sister caused such a stir within the White country club sport of tennis--and rarely has anyone, Black or White, become among the game's best in the cavalier way that Williams has.
The 18-year-old Compton, Calif., native used speed, agility and a 100-plus-miles-per-hour serve (one was even clocked at a blazing 122 miles per hour, the second-fastest serve in Women's Tennis Association history) to overpower her opponents and win the Lipton title, her first singles championship. By doing so, the 6-foot-2 Williams moved into the Top 10 for the first time. But the rankings don't tell the whole story. In fact, some tennis insiders--many of whom have followed Venus since she was 7--say that when Venus is at the top of her game, she is the best player in the world.
While the who's-the-best debate will undoubtedly continue, there is no doubt Venus has single-handedly energized the lackluster sport of women's tennis and has become the hottest sports commodity since golf's Tiger Woods captured the Masters title in 1996. Smart, photogenic and good, she is being overwhelmed by accolades and besieged by endorsement deals. She's "a promoter's dream," says Bart McGuire, head of the Women's Tennis Association.
But it wasn't long ago that tennis insiders were openly criticizing Venus and her approach to the game. They called her and her family "strange," if not a little "wacky." While some of the harsh words were directed at Venus--her personality and the way she dresses--most were directed at her father, Richard Williams, whose disdain for tennis has been widely reported. He regularly remains behind at the family's Florida home, refusing to travel to watch his daughter's matches. He says professional tennis is guilty of blinding young women with fame and money. His contempt for the sport peaked during last year's U.S. Open in New York City, when he told EBONY he wished his daughter Venus, a straight-A student, would "get the hell out of New York and get back to pursuing her education ... I would like to see her get out of tennis completely," remarked the 55-year-old former Louisiana sharecropper who introduced Venus and his youngest daughter Serena (also an outstanding professional tennis player who is now ranked in the Top 20) to tennis when they were toddlers.
But in the end, Venus' on-court performance and desire to play the game she had grown to love received more attention than the incidents away from the court, including what some believed were racist comments made by one of her U.S. Open opponents after losing to her. Although ranked 66th at the time, Venus made it to the finals of the tournament the first African-American to do so since Arthur Ashe in 1972--before losing to No. 1 Martina Hingis. Afterward, Venus vowed to come back stronger.
She was true to her word. Since the U.S. Open, Venus has consistently improved her game and moved into the top echelon of women tennis players, even as she suffers from patellar tendinitis in her left knee. Her most recent tournament achievements include:
* Adidas International: Finals in singles, defeated Hingis; her ranking improved to No. 16.
* IGA Invitational: Winner in singles, winner in doubles with sister Serena.
* Lipton Invitational: Winner in singles; was ranked among the world's Top 10 for the first time. Checking in at No. 10, she jumped some 100 spots from her ranking a year earlier.
* Italian Open: Finals in singles, lost to Hingis; her ranking improved to 7th.
* Australian Open: Quarterfinals in singles and winner in mixed doubles title with Justin Gimelstob.
* French Open: Quarterfinals in singles, lost to Hingis.
Over the past year, Venus and her sister Serena have developed an in-your-face style of intimidating play. Venus beat one player--who earlier had defeated her sister Serena--in straight sets, and said to her afterward: "You beat my sister. I owed you."
Some have called this kind of confrontational tendencies "cocky," others say, more than anything else, it's harmless teenage confidence. Whatever it is, it has worked to give the sisters a mental edge over whomever they play.
Teenage boys, Black and White, swoon over the millionaire sisters, who are now being affectionately referred to as the "Slice Girls" and "Sister Act." But neither Venus nor Serena reportedly has a boyfriend.
Richard Williams, who, in the beginning would hit tennis balls to his daughters practically every day for hours, admits he was the catalyst behind the creation of Venus and Serena, the tennis superstars. But he says he refuses to get sucked in by the success of his daughters. "I didn't train myself to be an educated tennis nut," he says. "They're sitting under the hot sun all day, heads going from the right to the left, back and forth, and then after each point, they say, `Yeah!' I'm not that type. Those people try to live through their kids. Venus has told me that she's so glad that I'm her daddy because I don't push her."
The elder Williams says he will continue to be the voice of reason in Venus' life and continue to push to keep his little "V-W" on the right road. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing. It's like a joke. Everyone sees my daughter as a dollar sign," he says, adding that he has tried to teach Venus that she's living a "superficial life" and that "you only get this kind of treatment when you win. People don't care about you when you lose."
But if the past is any sign of the future, Venus will continue to get the red-carpet treatment for many years to come.