Long before they became the beaded divas of tennis, Venus and
Serena Williams made a prediction to anyone willing to listen:
Someday they would alter the sport's complexion, dominate the
field, and run neck and neck as the two best players in the
world. For years, even after it was clear that the Williamses
were endowed with ungodly talent, their soothsaying was
dismissed as the ranting of callow, hyperconfident teenagers.
How, after all, could they become champions if they were
cocooned from the junior tennis establishment? How could they
fulfill their immense potential if their father, who had no
background in tennis, was their primary coach? How could they
amass ranking points on the pro circuit if they curtailed their
schedules to avoid falling behind in school? "No one seemed to
enjoy our comments, and people were pretty cynical," says Venus.
"But we're showing that we're capable of doing what we always
said we would."
This is an article from the April 5, 1999 issue
In a match in which the phrase advantage Williams meant nothing
and everything, Venus beat Serena 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, in the final of
the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., on Sunday. The
occasion certainly had novelty appeal: It was the first time two
sisters had battled for a pro women's tennis title since
19-year-old Maud Watson beat her 26-year-old sibling, Lilian, to
win Wimbledon in 1884. But the intra-Williams final was less
about history than about the future. "The way we're both
playing, it was inevitable we'd meet in a final," says Venus,
who's 18 and ranked No. 6. "And it's inevitable we'll meet again."
In reaching the last round of the biggest event on the calendar
after the majors--the Lipton was attended by every player in the
women's top 10--the Williamses played a harder, heavier and
deeper game than the rest of the field. They cranked more aces
than any two other players in the draw. The opponents they left
in their wake had names such as Hingis, Seles, Novotna and Graf,
winners of 36 Grand Slam singles titles among them, but these
champions faced an arsenal more potent than anything they'd seen
before. "With their power and their ground strokes, they have a
tough combination," Seles said of the Williamses after getting
waxed 6-2, 6-3 by Serena in the round of 16. "I think all of the
other players are seeing that."
The missiles continued to fly in Sunday's encounter, if with
considerably less accuracy. The match featured some electrifying
points, but overall it was a ragged display that had the feel of
an exhibition. Although the sisters denied that either nerves or
family dynamics affected their play, they committed a ghastly
107 unforced errors and lacked the fist-pumping intensity they
had displayed earlier in the tournament. "I definitely didn't
play very well, making way too many errors," said Serena, 17,
who dropped to 0-3 against her sister but rose in the rankings
to No. 11. "But when I'm playing someone, I'm just playing the
ball. We both wanted to treat it like any other match."
They were the only ones. The family affair was a media bonanza,
especially for Fox, which decided before the tournament to
televise the women's final in the prime Sunday slot and air the
men's championship match--which ended up pitting Richard
Krajicek against unknown Sebastien Grosjean--on Saturday. The
sister-act final was yet another boon for the WTA Tour, which
now has the most disparate collection of stars and rivalries in
its history. It was nirvana for the fans, most of whom were
rooting for a Williams-Williams final all week and some of whom
were so delirious with Williamsmania that they lined up at a
booth before Sunday's match and paid $5 a braid to get their
hair done like Venus and Serena.
No one relished the day more than the finalists' father,
Richard. Often misperceived as Richard III, he's more Richard
the Lionhearted, and he made no effort to conceal his immense
pride. The paterfamilias drove around the Crandon Park complex
all week in a black Mercedes minivan adorned with enormous
decals of his daughters' faces on the side windows. In the
stands before Sunday's match he held up a sign that read WELCOME
TO THE WILLIAMS SHOW!! He even had the words I TOLD YOU SO
printed on a T-shirt, but he decided against wearing it. "I had
it out," he said between drags on a menthol cigarette. "Then I
remembered my mama taught me not to brag like that."
For all that is bizarre about Richard--over the weekend he
announced that Steffi Graf, not Venus or Serena, is his favorite
player on the tour, and he said he has little time to
contemplate tennis because he's considering buying Rockefeller
Center for $3.9 billion--he has the Midas touch with his
daughters' careers. Granted, it doesn't hurt that Venus is 6'1"
and 170 sinewy pounds and that Serena is 5'10" and built like an
Olympic swimmer. But since introducing his daughters to tennis
on the public courts in Compton, Calif., Richard has flouted
convention and ignored advice from the tennis establishment. He
still devises seemingly harebrained schemes for his daughters
that have his wife, Oracene, rolling her eyes. "There's a method
to my madness," he says. "The goals were for my girls to be good
people and also to be the most powerful tennis players out there."
They are both. The Williams sisters have power in such abundance
that the standard criticism of their games--that they are
tactically deficient--is almost moot. When you can hit screaming
winners from four feet behind the baseline, crush untouchable
115 mph serves and reach the net in four loping strides, what's
the point of learning to play positional tennis? Telling the
Williamses they need to learn to massage a point is like telling
Mark McGwire to work on his drag bunting. "Everything's working
for them," says Graf, who lost to Venus 6-2, 6-4 in the
semifinals. "They go for their shots, they're taking risks, and
they don't really have a weakness."
What's more, in a sport that's still bedeviled by burnout,
abusive fathers, creepy coaches and general melodrama, the
Williams sisters are conspicuously well-adjusted. Serena
recently received her high school diploma and, having learned
French, is trying to teach herself to speak Portuguese. Venus
just finished reading a book on King Ludwig II and plans to take
courses on fashion design in the fall. "If I'm not enhancing
myself," says Venus, "I feel like I'm wasting my time."
Perhaps because of resentment of their current and pending
success, Venus and Serena have few friends on the tour. Much has
been made of their shatterproof confidence--or their cockiness,
depending on how charitable you are--but they are no haughtier
than fellow teen queens Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova. The
sisters parry questions about their insularity in the locker
room with a reflexive, "Everyone's entitled to their opinions."
Others in the Williams camp, however, are more outspoken.
"Tennis is such a clique," says their agent, Keven Davis, a
Seattle-based lawyer. "Chris Evert, for example, says negative
things about Venus and Serena but always says she sees herself
in Martina Hingis. There's a totally different standard for them."
Imbued with an us-against-the-world attitude, the sisters are
best friends and soulmates and even profess a telepathic
relationship. Earlier this year Richard thought it would be less
stressful for his daughters if they played in separate events as
much as possible. Last month the sisters made history when
Serena won a tournament in Paris in the same week that Venus
took a title in Oklahoma City. They spent most of their downtime
between matches E-mailing each other. "When we were doing
instant message on AOL," says Serena, "I could swear I could
hear Venus laughing."
During the Lipton the sisters stayed in the same hotel suite,
and Venus chauffeured Serena to the tennis complex in her black
Porsche Carrera. They recently purchased a plot of land in the
BallenIsles resort community in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where
they plan to build a mansion. By Serena's account, she was six
years old the last time she and Venus fought. "If they were
fighting, we all were fighting," says Oracene, who tempers her
husband's exuberance with such nonchalance that she is often
spotted stifling yawns during her daughters' matches. "That's
not the way this family operates."
Venus and Serena's preternaturally close relationship makes
their tennis encounters all the more psychologically delicate
and, for everyone else, all the more compelling. "It's pretty
weird when the person on the other side of the net is family,"
says tennis commentator Patrick McEnroe, who butted heads with
his brother, John, in a final in Chicago in 1991, the last time
siblings played each other for a singles title. "It's a
situation where you want to win but you don't want to win.
Remember, John and I were at different stages of our careers,
and he's almost eight years older than I am, so it must be that
much harder for the Williams sisters."
Though both Williamses took pains to minimize the significance
of playing against blood, the sloppiness of their tennis
indicated otherwise. Serena looked nothing like the hottest
player on the tour, one who started the day with a 16-match
winning streak and had convincingly defeated the No. 1-ranked
Hingis 48 hours earlier. "When you play an opponent who knows
exactly what you're going to do, it's going to be tough," Serena
said after Sunday's match. "I definitely look forward to another
final with Venus."
If the sisters are resigned to the inevitability of meeting
again on the court, they're determined not to let their rivalry
transcend tennis. After Serena drove a backhand wide on match
point on Sunday, the two slapped five at the net, and Venus, who
also won the Lipton last year, draped her arm around Serena's
broad shoulders. They giggled during the awards presentation and
strolled regally off the court together. An hour later, as the
sisters were driven away in separate cars to pose on a beach
with their respective trophies, Serena whipped out her cell
phone to chat with you-know-who.
"Family comes first, no matter how many times we play each
other," says Serena. "Nothing will come between me and my
sister." Unless the Williamses find a way to share the No. 1
ranking--and leave it to these two to try--that may soon have to
role, they combined for a ghastly 107 unforced errors.