It's a cool spring night in Compton, Calif., a rough-and-tumble community just south of Los Angeles and hard by Watts. Last year the number of murders declined slightly, to 78, but life in the city of 110,000 remains bleak. The median income for a family of four is about $13,000, dangerously near the poverty line. One young man's idea of an entrepreneurial undertaking is the drive-up drug business he has set up near the city tennis courts and playground in East Rancho Dominguez, a Hispanic enclave in Compton.
Not far away, inside a small mint-green house that has been spray-painted with black graffiti, a 10-year-old girl sleeps, untroubled by the nightmarish things occurring just outside her home. She is dreaming of wearing a white dress and playing tennis on the grass courts at Wimbledon. Of putting on a pith helmet and digging for dinosaur bones on foreign continents. And of stepping into a space suit and flying to Jupiter.
Venus Ebonistarr Williams doesn't know much about life on some planet 367 million miles away. Yet her fantasies aren't so unimaginable when you consider the improbable turns her life is taking here on earth, all because of what she can do with a tennis racket. Coached and counseled by her father, Richard, a tall, bearded, athletically gifted man of 49 who taught himself the game, Venus is the newest prodigy in a sport that seems to anoint its future stars as they emerge from the womb.
Older ball girls and ball boys want her to sign their T-shirts, though she has just learned to write in cursive script. Coaches want her to move to their camps for advanced training. Manufacturers shower her with free rackets, shoes and clothes. And agents from the world's biggest sports-management firms lobby to represent her in future deals.
June 9, 1991
No doubt about it: At the astonishing age of 10 years and 11 months, Venus is the most hotly pursued preteen in U.S. tennis history, and that includes Chris Evert; Tracy Austin, who made the cover of this magazine at 13; and Jennifer Capriati, who had an agent at 12 and made the cover last year at 13, on the occasion of her first pro tournament. Even more improbable, Venus has attained this status before playing so much as a single point in one national tournament.
It is her skills, her size and her speed that have landed Venus in the midst of this feeding frenzy, as well as the fact that she plays in Southern California, one of the toughest breeding grounds for tennis players in the country. This year, Venus has won seven of her 16 matches without losing a game and is ranked No. 1 in Southern California in the girls' 12-and-under division. "She is from California and she is from a minority background, and both of those facts mean she is going to get attention," says Seena Hamilton, founder and director of the Easter Bowl, one of the country's preeminent junior tournaments. Still, says Hamilton, "Venus is tennis's new precocity."
Patrick McGee, an agent at Advantage International, a Washington, D.C.-based sports-management firm, has heard glowing reports on Venus, but he hasn't seen her play. Still, he would love to sign her when and if she turns pro. "People are enamored of Venus because she's so young," says McGee. "In tennis these days, the younger the better. It's like Capriati wasn't enough."
The object of all this attention weighs 80 pounds and measures 64 inches—the majority of which is located in the space between her waist and her ankles. She wears her hair in braids that are sometimes cornrowed and sometimes left dangling from various parts of her head. She is a straight-A student in the fifth grade and occasionally leaves her sweater at the playground. She likes playing soccer, tag and hide-and-seek with her four sisters. When she grows up, she wants to be—in order of preference—a tennis player, an archaeologist or an astronaut.
It's not in her nature to sit still, which is why television is a bore. Unless a tennis match is on. "I look at the grips they use and their technique," says Venus, fidgeting as usual. "I try to see if they're playing smart and concentrating, and playing to their opponents' weaknesses. That's what I try to do when I play."
Unlike most players her age, Venus is aggressive on court. "If you give me a short shot, I will attack you," she says. "I'm not a baseliner who rallies. I try to get the point over with."
When that sentence is complete, Venus swings her legs onto the sofa and bobs her head from side to side, as if a song is playing inside it. The head-bobbing lasts a few seconds. Then she shifts her body a bit and tugs at her pink stretch pants. A tennis motif dominates the living room. Tennis magazines and empty racket covers lie on the sofa. In one corner, a bunch of old rackets are piled in a box. In another corner, a big red-and-white ball machine tries unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous.
Venus is like a movie that Hollywood goes gaga over even before it premieres. She has positive buzz. It began three years ago, after John McEnroe and Pete Sampras saw her hitting with Paul Cohen, a teaching pro who specializes in junior players, at a private court in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Cohen had given Venus a few lessons and had advised Richard on coaching strategy. Last July, during the Wimbledon fortnight, shortly after Venus had won her 17th singles title in less than a year—the Southern California 10-and-under championship—she was featured in The New York Times in a piece that was in close proximity to stories about Capriati and Steffi Graf. (Two months ago The Times ran a piece about Venus on the front page of the entire paper.) Tennis legends Dodo Cheney and Jack Kramer saw her play later in the year at a celebrity event in Los Angeles and said she performed like someone at least four years older. Kramer thought she was 14 until someone set him straight.
Such notices have landed Venus on the A lists for celebrity events and exhibitions around Southern California. Last July Jeanne Austin, Tracy's mother, saw Venus in action at her daughter's charity tournament for underprivileged children. Jeanne told her son Jeff, another agent at Advantage International, that Venus was "extremely talented." He in turn passed the word along to McGee, who, as it turned out, had already been pursuing Venus. When McGee first called Compton to make his pitch and to arrange for Venus to meet one of his clients, 1990 Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison, he didn't know that his competitors from IMG and ProServ had already been in touch with the Williams family.
Garrison finally met Venus at the Nancy Reagan Just Say No to Drugs celebrity tournament at the Riviera Country Club in L. A. last October. Venus hit with Garrison and was photographed with the tournament hostess and her husband. Garrison also watched Venus and her nine-year-old sister, Serena, who has since replaced Venus as the No. 1-seeded 10-and-under girl in Southern California, play doubles against Steve Garvey and Bruce Jenner. "For 10 years old, Venus is exceptional," says Garrison. "She would have beaten the 10-year-old Zina into the ground."
Jimmy Evert, Chris's father and Capriati's first coach, saw Venus show off her strokes in Fort Lauderdale last December. Evert's son John, the IMG agent who snared Capriati's signature, had visited Compton and invited the Williams family to Florida. While there, Venus met Chris, whom Richard calls "tennis's royalty," and spent 90 minutes on the clay courts at Holiday Park, where Jimmy has been the pro for 42 years. "She volleyed, which most youngsters don't do at that age," says Jimmy. "And she hit the ball very hard. She could be favorably compared to Jennifer."
John Wilkerson, the Houston-based coach who introduced Garrison and Lori McNeil, another touring pro, to tennis, found nary a weakness in Venus's game. "She's headed for Grand Slam titles," says Wilkerson.
And who knows, maybe even to performances on payper-view, now that a certain wirehaired boxing promoter has ingratiated himself with the Williamses. Don King showed up in Compton a few weeks ago with a limo and took everyone—Venus, her sisters and her parents—to lunch at a Los Angeles soul-food restaurant. After lunch, the family decided that King would be a suitable tour guide when Venus goes to New York City in September to catch the end of the U.S. Open.
Richard, who owns a private-security company with six employees, laughs off suggestions that associating with King would be more ill-advised than leaving his daughter alone in a room filled with tabloid reporters. "People should be more concerned with what we're trying to get from Mr. King," he says. "He's the one with the millions."
To many people, though, what's happening to Venus is hardly a laughing matter. "She's 10 years old and agents are talking to her?" says Dennis Ralston, the former Davis Cup player and Wimbledon finalist who's now the men's coach at SMU, in disbelief. "What's happened to our sport?" he says. "How's that kid going to enjoy anything that a 10-year-old should enjoy?"
Ralston complains that too many young players and their parents are rushing heedlessly toward pro tennis, rather than participating at the college level for at least a year or two, because they are seduced by the success of a handful of teens. Agents, he says, indulge those fantasies. "They're looking to sign large numbers in hopes of getting the next Pete Sampras in the bunch," says Ralston.
The agents see things differently. "More times than not, we encourage athletes to stay in school," says Ivan Blumberg, who heads ProServ's tennis division and represents Sampras. "Even if you assume that the only thing an agent has in mind is making money, in the long run, that agent makes less as a result of a player's premature decision to turn pro. An athlete who waits until she is 15 or 16 and plays until she's 27, as opposed to one who turns pro at a younger age and is not able to play by the time she's 15, should have a more prosperous career, both financially and emotionally."
Adds Arthur Ashe, "An agent might be the best buffer and most-valued second opinion for a family. Some might cynically say that all agents are avaricious and that they only want to milk these kids dry and discard them. But I know of a lot who aren't like that."
If it all sounds more like business than sport, it is. "The bottom line is, agents know that if they don't make contact with Venus Williams, someone else will," says Ashe. "They all feel they have to ring her doorbell."
Until this year, Richard had no trouble keeping track of the visitors, or of the discussions he'd had about Venus. He started a notebook-sized journal when she was seven, at the suggestion of a friend who believed that the story of a tennis star from the mean streets of Compton would make interesting reading. Richard continues to record the events of his daughter's life, but the task of sifting through the mounting pile of offers and interview requests has overwhelmed him. He has since turned that task over to Keven Davis, a Seattle lawyer and a close friend of a doctor who has treated Venus. Davis, who represents entertainers and pro athletes, is being assisted by Sally Sullivan, an attorney in the same firm who was a nationally ranked junior player 20 years before Venus was born.
Davis and Sullivan aren't charging for their services. Says Richard, "There are some things we aren't financially able to do, even though we need the services. Keven and Sally are explaining the legal aspects of the offers we've gotten, so that we won't throw the girls' lives away. They are concerned with our family, not with our money."
Richard says that he and his wife, Oracene, have been offered houses, cars and millions of dollars by people who want Venus's name on endorsement contracts. For instance, they declined when a real estate developer in the Southwest offered to move the entire family to a newly built home at his golf and tennis resort, in exchange for being able to advertise that "Venus Williams, budding tennis star," resides at the complex. They have refused free trips to Wimbledon for Venus. Richard now refers all promising offers to Davis and Sullivan. Davis says that IMG, ProServ, Advantage and agents from other firms have shown "substantial interest" in Venus, but he admits that he has not received any formal offers from any of them.
Under Women's Tennis Association rules, Venus can't turn professional until the year of her 14th birthday, or on Jan. 1, 1994. "A lot of people think that she'll be ready then and that she'll do well," says Richard. "But it's too soon to speculate, because in my mind, she hasn't done anything yet."
What might Venus's signature be worth if she is ready? If Capriati, Inc., is any indication, the answer is plenty. As a rookie pro last year, she earned in excess of $2 million in endorsements alone.
Autographs, interviews, limo rides, plane trips, celebrity events, photo ops with the Reagans—it would seem impossible for Venus to have a normal life amid all the hoopla. "I hope they're less concerned with creating a champion than with creating a champion person," says Garrison. "With all the expectations, you can sometimes forget that you're still a good person, even though you might lose."
Richard and Oracene are determined that Venus have a balanced life. Later this month she will play the Southern California 12-and-under championships. After that, she'll play a few exhibitions but, according to Richard, won't compete again until the Orange Bowl tournament in December. This summer, besides traveling to Flushing Meadow, Venus will take classes in gymnastics and math, visit relatives in Michigan and Louisiana, and read and read. "It's time to back off a little from tennis," says Richard. "I'd like for the racket to stay out of her hand for a while. Venus is still young. We want her to be a little girl while she is a little girl."
Thus the Williams household has a few new rules. Rule No. 1: No one answers the phone before 10 o'clock in the morning so that everyone can get dressed and eat breakfast without being disturbed. Rule No. 2: Venus and Serena may not divulge the name of their elementary school to the press. In an effort to keep reporters at bay, Richard has had the girls change schools three times.
Serena is also a promising player. For now, though, she is enjoying the fringes of the glare of publicity focused on her older sister. A fourth-grader, she, too, gets all A's, and she says that if she can't be a tennis player, she wants to be a gymnast because her favorite activity off the court is turning backflips.
The attention may be overwhelming for Richard and Oracene, but it certainly wasn't unexpected. Venus and Serena are the products of careful planning by their parents, who decided long ago that their children would be tennis players. That all of them turned out to be girls only reinforced their position, because Oracene believed the opportunities for female athletes had greatly improved.
Before she chose to concentrate on tennis two years ago, Venus was undefeated in 19 track meets both as a sprinter and as a middle-distance runner, clocking a 5:29 mile at age eight. While Richard still wants her to pursue both sports, Oracene, who's a nurse, asked her to focus on one, because she worried that running on the tennis court as well as around the track would place too much strain on her young body. "It will be hard to oblige Venus with all the things she'd like to do, because she's good at so many," says Richard.
Richard had played football, basketball and golf as a teenager in the predominantly black Cedar Grove section of Shreveport, La. After he married Oracene, he learned tennis by reading instruction books, watching videos and practicing every morning with a group of men on a court about 100 yards from where the 1965 Watts riots began. Richard also taught Oracene and his three oldest daughters—Yetunde, now 18; Isha, 17; and Lyndrell, 12—to play, working out the kinks, you could say, until Venus and Serena came along.
When Venus was four, Richard loaded her into his Volkswagen van along with half a dozen rackets and seven milk crates full of tennis balls, and traveled to the public courts in Watts and Compton, where he gave her lessons. A year later Serena joined them. These days the trio spends most afternoons at the city courts not far from that enterprising drug dealer in East Rancho Dominguez. Richard jokingly refers to the two fenced-in courts and the nearby playground as "East Compton Hills Country Club."
Then there is reality. "We play in hell," he says. "We've been shot at on the tennis court. But now gang members know us and protect us when the shooting starts." Gang members have also taught Venus and Serena some of the finer points of gang-war survival, particularly how to drop to their hands and knees and crawl away from the crossfire.
During practice, Richard either stands on one side of the court, hitting balls at the two girls, or smokes cigarettes on the sidelines and watches them rally. During the course of an afternoon, they refine the shots in their repertoires: spinning serves, angle volleys, topspin forehands, two-handed backhands, lobs, smashes and drop shots. Periodically, Richard shouts, "O.K., good shot," or "Turn your shoulder," or "Concentrate now."
The sessions are as much lessons in common courtesy as they are in shotmaking and strategy. On this particular evening, dusk is quickly turning into darkness, but Richard wants to see a few more smashes from Venus. First, he asks, "Venus, is it too dark to hit some overheads?"
"No, Daddy," she replies as she leaves Serena and moves to midcourt.
"Would you hit a few more for me?"
Richard lobs the first of 10 balls about 100 feet into the rapidly darkening sky. Venus scans upward, shuffling around in a tight circle until the fuzzy yellow ball bounces behind her. "Ay," she groans, repeating the noise she makes whenever she Hubs a shot. She finds nine other lobs and neatly puts each one away.
"Thank you, Venus," her father says when they are done.
"You're welcome, Daddy," she replies, before running back to resume her chattering with Serena.
"I try to keep the pressure off so that they will always enjoy the game and think of it as fun," says Richard.
Richard says the income from his security-guard business and his wife's salary as a nurse is well above the median in Compton. However, finding the money to finance tennis dreams is a concern. One expense the family will probably not have to absorb is that of top-notch coaching. Nick Bollettieri, at whose Bradenton, Fla., camp Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Aaron Krickstein were developed into champions, is vying for the job, as are Rick Macci of Haines City, Fla., who coached Capriati for 2½ years, and several other coaches. If Venus ends up training full time at a tennis academy, she will receive a full scholarship. Richard is mulling over his options, though he's hesitant to leave Compton because he thinks that practicing and living amid the mayhem there has made Venus a tenacious player. So, he may have her work with a local pro. "Her skills have already passed me," says Richard. "I need someone to give her better practice and take her to the next level."
With so much expected of Venus at such a young age, every decision about her career that Richard makes from now on will be scrutinized. Already he is being given the third degree by strangers who see him as a fortune-seeking tennis father, while others have accused him of holding her back. He insists that money and fame aren't his primary concerns. "I'm not going to let Venus pass up her childhood," he says. "Long after tennis is over, I want her to know who she is."
He opens a desk drawer in his living room and pulls out Swee' Pea and Other Playground Legends, a book detailing the troubled basketball career of Lloyd Daniels, a former New York City playground star. "They said he was Magic [Johnson] with a jump shot, but he didn't go to class and then drugs took him," says Richard. "That will never happen with my kids. Venus has already read this book."
"Mr. Williams has a lot of common sense, and it's obvious that he is devoted to his children," says Ashe.
"By talking with people like Arthur Ashe, John Wilkerson and Jimmy Evert, I can learn how to give my daughters class and self-respect and make them outstanding citizens," says Richard. "If I can teach those things, it's like giving them pure gold, even if they don't play pro tennis."
Meanwhile, Venus contemplates a future that includes both tennis and college. "I think you have to believe in yourself and never give up and one day you'll make it," she says.
All the way to Jupiter, perhaps, with a shovel in one hand and a racket in the other.