A first week of rain did Mother Wimbledon no good. Day after
day, tennis's grandest dame burrowed under cover, peeking out at
the plunking puddles, taking blow after blow from an impatient
world. Tear up the grass! Throw a dome over the tournament!
Shove it into the Thames! cried the complainers. Nearly three
days passed with no play, and Mother Wimbledon limped into
Saturday praying for sun and a savior. What it got was a sky
sliding from black to gray to the sickly beige of an English
smile. What it got, when tennis finally began, was Venus Williams.
She was like nothing Wimbledon had ever seen. Ranked 59th in the
world and with nary a tournament title to her credit, the
17-year-old Williams made her debut at the All-England Lawn
Tennis Club with the subtlety of a crashing space station. With
Williams's Monday match washed all the way to Saturday, the
British press gorged itself on Sister from Another Planet
morsels: Venus's girlhood practices in Compton, Calif., dodging
bullets; her refusal, as a Jehovah's Witness, to celebrate her
own birthday; and, of course, her clattering headful of
beads--green, purple and white, in honor of the tournament.
She presented, all in all, a wonderful show of mindless
arrogance. Sitting next to her 15-year-old sister, Serena, at a
press conference before her first match, Venus serenely answered
questions about her father and coach, Richard, who had
inexplicably stayed home; about her slow emergence on the tour,
her visit to the Tower of London, her declarations that she and
Serena will one day battle it out for No. 1. She responded to
charges of cockiness--Brenda Schultz-McCarthy reported last week
that Venus had said, "Don't touch me" at the net during an
earlier tournament--by saying, "I don't hold great
conversations. Actually, I don't hold conversations at all."
Asked if she could save U.S. tennis, she said, "Yes, I think
so." Asked if she admired any other players, she said, "No, I
Such talk set up Saturday's first-round match against
91st-ranked Magdalena Grzybowska of Poland as a routine
trouncing. With her mother, Oracene, and Serena watching, Venus
unrolled a 6-4, 2-0 lead in the sweet confines of Court No. 1,
forehand booming, serve at 114 mph, beads jangling. Grzybowska
evened things at 2-all in the second, but Venus pushed her to
break point and seemed ready to put things away. Serena, face
hidden by a sheet of white beads herself, pulled out A Tale of
Two Cities and began to read. "I read the other one, Great
Expectations, but I like this one better," Serena said after the
July 6, 1997
Grzybowska hammered an overhead smash, then hit an inventive
drop shot to hold serve and go up 3-2. Serena put her book away.
Venus fell apart. Grzybowska, never intimidated by Venus's
power, began ripping backhands deep and down the line. Venus's
serve crumbled. She kept hitting the ball to that laser
backhand. She lost seven straight games, and she suddenly looked
lost. Early in the third set Venus went lunging for a shot and
ended up facedown on the turf. Three times in the third she had
Grzybowska down break point at love and couldn't convert. By the
time it was over, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, Williams stood revealed as a
huge talent with little idea of how to adjust to an opponent or
adversity. "I was surprised," Grzybowska said. "I don't know why
she was playing like that. My backhand is my best shot."
Grzybowska met Williams at the net, curious to hear something
outrageous. Williams said nothing. Later, players kept coming to
Grzybowska, full of joy and congratulations. "It was very
funny," Grzybowska said. "Because of all the stuff in the
newspapers about her... I guess everybody thought it was too
It stayed that way for one more day. VENUS OUT OF ORBIT!
screamed one Sunday headline. VENUS HAS TUMBLED BACK DOWN TO
EARTH crowed another. Williams didn't seem to care. "It's my
first Wimbledon," she said. "There will be many more."