It would be easier to call Venus Williams a revolutionary if she didn't come with a lawyer, an accountant, a stockbroker and an omnipresent tennis father. So just call her an incandescent talent, a budding icon in cornrows who has the audacity to say, "I think I can change the game"—and might have the gifts to back those words up.
Only 14, Williams already has an image as mysterious as Greta Garbo's—largely because, until last week, her father, Richard, hadn't permitted her to play in public in three years. Further, Richard had repeatedly insisted that he would never allow his daughter to turn pro at such a young age as 14. Any parent who would, he said, "should be shot." Well, Venus made her professional debut at a tour event in Oakland, Calif., last week and caused a sensation when she defeated the world's 59th-ranked player, Shaun Stafford, in straight sets and then had second-ranked Arantxa Sànchez Vicario down a set and a service break before succumbing 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.
Regrettably, Williams's debut was as disheartening as it was momentous. This, after all, was the girl who was supposed to be different, who would buck the trend and refuse to turn pro so early. Instead, by playing in Oakland, Williams slipped in under the wire: Girls under 18 who turn pro after this year will be limited to a handful of pro events. The rule is based on a recommendation by a Women's Tennis Council-appointed panel, which found that the tour makes a variety of unhealthy demands on young girls.
There is ample evidence for that conclusion, most notably the case of Jennifer Capriati, who recently completed a stint in a Miami Beach drug rehab center. No sooner had Williams made her mark against Sànchez Vicario than Capriati, herself a onetime 14-year-old phenom, announced she would enter this week's Virginia Slims of Philadelphia. It was to be her first tournament since the 1993 U.S. Open. In short, Capriati is attempting a comeback at 18.
Is Williams tough enough to avoid flameout? Labeled a "Cinderella of the ghetto" by her father, she emerged from a public park in Compton, Calif., where, according to Richard, gang members guarded the grounds while Venus and her younger sister, Serena, who's also being groomed for tennis greatness, practiced with dead balls on cracked courts. Shortly after Venus won the Southern California girls' 12-and-under title at age 10, Richard moved the family to Florida so Venus and Serena could train with Rick Macci, who immediately put the two girls on scholarship just as he had former pupils Capriati and Mary Pierce.
Venus's tennis upbringing has been unique in one important aspect. Her father withdrew her from junior tennis in 1991 and, citing the toxic pressures of an overheated system, announced that she would not play any more junior tournaments. That decision was viewed with skepticism within the tennis community. How could Venus—growing in isolation at Macci's academy like a hothouse flower—develop into a topflight player without facing the pressures only tournament competition can provide?
A year ago Richard withdrew Venus and Serena, now 13, from Carver Middle School in Delray Beach and began teaching them at home with the help of their mother, Oracene, older sister Lyndrell, 16, and various hired tutors. Venus's education includes speaking engagements at inner-city schools. "I know I should go back there, because that's where I'm from," she says. "It's my roots."
Venus's triumphant debut seemed to vindicate Richard's methods, at least for now. Unlike other phenoms, who have been programmed only to win baseline battles, Venus has an all-court game. She is 6'1", with a serve that is already one of the best on the circuit, and in her two pro matches she rushed the net more than Steffi Graf does in a season. Still, how much Venus achieves could well depend on how sensible her program is over the next couple of years, and that depends largely on Richard.
Is Richard a worried father trying to save his child prodigy from wolfish agents and the harassing press, or is he a master manipulator? At times his behavior is baffling. He recently introduced Venus and Serena to a tennis official with the words, "Meet the white lady." During SI's interview with Venus in Oakland, she was accompanied by Richard, Oracene, Serena and three family friends. As the entourage sat down, Richard said, "Don't be intimidated. We won't hurt you."
During Venus's victory over Stafford, Richard wandered in and out of the stands, at times clapping and rooting against his daughter. "Come on, Shaun," he yelled several times. And as Venus worked on the practice court the afternoon of her second-round match, Sànchez Vicario arrived. As she waited for Venus to complete her workout, Richard strode over and pumped Sànchez Vicario's hand. "I hope you win," he said.
"You hope I win?" said Sànchez Vicario, arching an eyebrow. She then walked away.
Richard says he is setting his own rules, but just how much has he defied the system? Venus is the product of a Florida tennis academy. She spends an average of four hours a day on court. She has left the conventional school system. She is a pro at 14, although her father insists he had nothing to do with that decision. "It was Venus's decision," he says. "I've been trying to get her to quit since she was eight." He also says "fathers are bad for tennis."
Now that Venus is a pro, Richard has made a series of new pledges: Venus will play no more tournaments this year, no more than five in 1995 and no more than nine in '96; she will not sign with a management company; she will, at least for the moment, refuse to sign any endorsement contracts, because once a player signs a deal with a sponsor, she is under pressure to play more. "I want Venus to play for Venus, and her dog," says Richard. "I don't want her to perform for anyone. We're going to do this our way."
When asked about reports that he has received six figures from Reebok—the clothing line often sported by members of his family—as a consultant to its urban-youth program, Richard says, "Reebok never paid me one penny." But according to Reebok's public relations director, Dave Fogelson, Richard received a consultant's fee from Reebok for two years. The "consultant's arrangement" lapsed "fairly recently," Fogelson says, but he will not reveal the amount.
Perhaps Venus doesn't need a management company because Richard already has the shell of one in place for her. Attorney Keven Davis of Seattle and accountant Larry Bailey of Washington, D.C, have represented the Williamses for three years. Stockbrocker Leland Hardy, a former boxer, is a friend and family adviser. All were in Oakland. "It's scary," Oracene says. "This is a totally different world. We're just trying to keep balanced and stay on the high ground."
Regardless of what ground they're on, Richard will be monitoring his daughter's journey into pro tennis, and her fans will be monitoring him.
Venus, who hadn't played in public for three years, proved to be an instant crowd pleaser.
At his daughter's debut, the enigmatic Richard sometimes applauded her opponent.