Words by Stacy Y. China
This article was originally published in The Source Magazine, April 1998 (Issue #103)
She Stands 6’2″ and has been labelled a “Bad Guy” by her competition. But VENUS WILLIAMS doesn’t care – she’s just winning tennis matches.
The fans love her—they already stop her in the street and come up to her during dinner. The media adores her—every major print and broadcast outlet has already done a story on her, or wants to. The tennis world, her place of business, is on the fence. Women’s Tennis Association Tour promoters hail her as the Messiah of women’s tennis while rival players take potshots at her background, her popularity, her attitude.
Venus Williams simply doesn’t care. That’s not meant in a bad way. Williams, 17, has genuine concern for her tennis career and for her family. But she is well aware that she is in the center of a hurricane-force storm, one that threatens to either cheapen or exhaust anyone who dares to join the fray. So she chooses not to.
I really don’t try to understand it, I just do the work,” said Williams while resting next to her sister Serena’s green clay court at the family house in Palm Beach Gardens. Venus has an adjacent court, and they share a hard court to the right.
She was talking about Algebra 2 at the time, but could have been easily talking about her life. Instead of living in a higher-profile area, dropping out of high school and having the tennis tour consume her, Williams lives with Serena, 16, and their parents, Oracene and Richard, on a 20-acre stretch of land deep in the Florida woods (there are three other sisters, Yetunde, 24, Isha, 23, and Lyndrea, 19, all in graduate school or college). Venus and Serena attend private high school about a half hour away, and Venus has taken some classes at Palm Beach Community College. And the ways of the tennis world will consume her—over her dead body.
Remember, this is the girl who was raised for the first 11 years of her life in Compton, where she and Serena were taught to play tennis by their father on public courts. Venus was the top ranked United States Tennis Association 12-and-under player in Southern California by the time she was eight years old, and had a 67-0 record.
That was enough to attract the first reporters and Reebok, which signed Williams to a contract worth millions—millions that the family used to leave Compton and take up residence first near Boca Raton and now in Palm Beach Gardens. Home is a four-bedroom, split-level-column house with two dogs, two minilakes, and various cars Richard is allegedly working on-about as far from the pastel pink-and-green, Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous Florida scene as you can get. At night, personality is the only thing that lights this place up: go outside and it’s pitch black. After moving to Florida, Venus and Serena trained with tennis coach Rick Macci for a year, according to their father, but neither of them played another junior match. In tennis, this way the equivalent of skipping college hoops and going straight to the NBA from the playground. It just doesn’t happen.
Yet it did for Venus. She turned pro at 14 and won her first match at the Bank of the West tournament in Oakland (similar to taking the winning shot in your first NBA game and nailing it). Williams played sporadically after that, never giving up school entirely and traveling on the tour full-time. Nineteen ninety-seven was her busiest year so far, when she competed at three of the four Grand Slam events and lost in the U.S. Open finals to Martina Hingis, the No. 1 player in the world. To some, her Open finish was a promise fulfilled, as Williams put together a show of powerful groundstrokes and strong serves observers believe will make her a top-10 player for years to come. She finished 1997 at No. 22.
The match was so anticipated because Hingis, also 17, has done everything Williams has not. She played a full junior schedule before turning pro and won French Open and Wimbledon titles. She gladly left school behind after turning pro at 14. And despite having an ego only slightly smaller than the past five No. 1 players combined, she has managed to keep her rivals happy by dismissing them with a wink and a giggle instead of a straight face. This impresses everyone except Williams. And before you start, don’t talk to her about having respect for the top players.
“People say I’m disrespectful,” she said. “Is it disrespectful when I want to win matches to get better? No. A lot of players out there have too much respect. They say, “It’s a privilege to play the No. 1 player.” Why are you out there thinking like that? It should be a privilege to play me. That’s a little too much respect.”
You might think that attitude should be attributed to her father Richard, a no-nonsense character who thinks—no, knows—that his child will be the No. 1 player before long. Wrong. Visit her mother, Oracene, instead. “Arrogance is part of her thing,” she said, honey-colored braids swinging with her head. It’s what makes her interesting. It’s what makes people want to write about her and talk about her.”
And Lord, they do talk. The U.S Open turned into a virtual soap opera, with stories of cold eyes and upturned noses given or received from the Williams camp becoming routine. Players complained to the press, saying Venus was “unfriendly” and not “fun to be around” like Hingis. During Williams’s semifinal match with Irina Spirlea, the Romanian bumped her on a changeover and was so angry with losing that she could barely stand to sit in the interview room. “She thinks she’s the fucking Venus Williams, and she doesn’t have to move,” Spirlea spit out.
Venus was exasperated. “They made it sound like there were actually fistfights going on in the locker room,” she said. “None of that even happened.”
Oracene Williams sighs deeply, “Some things I think we should have handled more aggressively and told them where to go,” she said. “I don’t want [Venus] backing down. My child is not a puppet to be told what to do and how to act. That’s what I do. No one should tell my child what to do. Hell, yeah, she’s arrogant. She has a right to be—she’s good.”
When asked about the negative U.S Open publicity, Venus refused to talk about racism on the Tour or about her father’s comments (he called Spirlea a “tall white turkey” after the bump). He apologize later, however, and Spirlea should consider herself lucky. Richard does not apologize for anything often.
A big, burly man of 55, is it not unusual to find him with a More menthol cigarette in his mouth and a racquet in his hand, working with Serena on her slice backhand or encouraging Venus to do better while she practices nearby. He does things his own way, keeping his daughter away from coaches as much as possible. This is another no-no in sports, kind of like Jordan going to Phil Jackson and saying, “You know what? I don’t need a coach. Me and the guys can run this on our own.”
Richard is convinced Venus and Serena can. He has two men hit with the girls when they practice, but they are under strict orders to keep it light out there. No coaching allowed.
“There is no way I would let my kid be coached for four or five years, ‘casue I’d be telling her she’s a dummy,” he said. Williams believes that once a person is taught the basic rules and strokes of the game, it is up to them to improve. Barking orders at them for years will not help and may even hurt their self-confidence in the long run.
Which is why he was ambivalent about a recent story on Macci, who complained that Richard never gives him due credit for coaching the girls as preteens. “I never thought he developed nothing about their games,” Richard Williams said. “If anything, I see what he took away. I don’t know nothing he did. All I know is what Venus and Serena went out there and did for themselves. I’m not trying to tear no one down, but I don’t think he could teach my kids nothing.”
Richard, on the other hand, has quite a bit to teach the tennis establishment about how to market the player. He understands why players criticize Venus and why some reporters and commentators join in. “They really feel that we don’t deserve what we get,” he said. “You need someone to promote you and nobody can promote you in the tennis world better than I can.”
“We definitely sell magazines and newspapers, we know we do,” he said. “I do it better than anyone else.”
In 1997 alone, Venus was on David Letterman, Jay Leno, Montel Williams and 60 Minutes. Was the subject of countless articles, and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the U.S Open even though she lost the final. More of the same is planned for Serena, who playing in only her second WTA event in Chicago last November, beat down top-10 players Monica Seles and Mary Pierce before losing in the semifinals. She finished 1997 at No. 99.
“People say they should be [on the Tour] and I agree with them,” Richard Williams said. “But that man managing them didn’t believe they should be there. These people have a right to be jealous but it’s not us. They should look at their own managers. The women in tennis have been held back and taught not to believe in themselves. It took Venus and Serena to bring it out, Venus and Serena are the shining example of what [players] should have been all along.”
And what they should have been, apparently, are goofy teenagers. Never chained to their racquets, the Williams sisters listen to more Green Day than hip-hop, get occasionally serious about their electric guitar lessons, watch funny movies, follow Jenny McCarthy, and do practically all this before 10pm (Venus admitted to never staying up late enough to see Letterman or Leno until she was a guest). They have lots of inside jokes, like most siblings, that send them into stitches while other people smile politely. They also have a good time on the court. Venus jokingly blamed her hitting partner for distracting her and causing her to double fault. “You’re bringing me down,” she said in her best deadpan voice.
Serena has a similar streak. Tall, lanky, and usually beaded like Venus, she is more of a fire-brand and not afraid to let you know. When her partner called her serve out, she glared, shrugged, and said “You get a lot of bad calls on the Tour, too. But you know, champions don’t get bad calls.”
Maybe. But you’d be afraid too when your whole world was about to be turned upside down by players who came seemingly out of nowhere. Not to be outdone by the ascent of her older sister, Serena made her share of noise on the Tour as well. In addition to her success in Chicago in November, she smacked No. 3 Lindsay Davenport before losing to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the semifinals of a warm-up tournament before the Australian Open. Venus beat Hingis in the first round of the same event and reached the final before losing to Sanchez Vicario.
At the season’s first Grand Slam, Serena continued her streak by beating Spirlea in the first round of the Australian Open, and then played Venus, marking the first time African-American sisters played each other in a Tour event. Venus won 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, but not before they were heralded worldwide as the Next Big Things.
“How will they end up?” Oracene Williams asked. “One and two. Two and one. Venus is a beautiful player to watch and Serena is a powerful player to watch. It’s just a matter of time before they put it all together.”
Venus Williams plans to put it together right now. “I think there are some people who don’t want to accept that I’m here and I’m going to take things over,” she said as the sun set on her sanctuary. There was no boast in her voice, no showing off. Just a simple statement of fact. “They should be more interested in getting their own game right than worrying abut me and what I’m doing. It just doesn’t help them.”
And if you don’t believe that, too bad. “I guarantee them that I don’t worry about them at all,” she said while falling into a fit of laughter. Venus Williams simply doesn’t care.