The whole thing is terrible. Venus Williams, who's 17 years old,
had to play her sister, Serena Williams, who's 16 years old, in
the second round of the Australian Open last week. Someone had
to win and someone had to lose, rules are rules, and Venus won
and Serena lost. Terrible. Serena is getting to have more fun.
"Are you going to play against a man tomorrow?" someone asks
"No, I can't," she says sadly. "I'm still in the regular
Terrible. This is Sunday, the end of the first week of the
two-week tournament. Serena is walking around with a page ripped
out of the ATP tour press guide, on which is printed the
biography of someone named Karsten Braasch, German, 30 years
old, lefthanded, ranked 226th in the male world at the end of
1997. Serena has talked him into playing a one-set match in the
next few days. Serena says she's "going to take him out." She
says this in an Arnold Schwarzenegger way.
Venus, alas, still has to play women. She has moved along to the
quarterfinals (she was scheduled to play second-seeded Lindsay
Davenport on Tuesday) on the way to a possible first Grand Slam
title--heck, first professional title. Terrible. Why is there
not more time in a teenager's day?
"I am going to play against a man before I leave here," Venus
says in the little press conference amphitheater at Melbourne
Park after dispatching Patty Schnyder 6-4, 6-1. "I just have to
fit it in."
The idea of playing against men--25 years after Billie Jean
King's grand showdown with Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome--is the
latest inspiration of the two sisters from Palm Beach Gardens,
Fla., on their excellent adventure through this new country on
this new continent in this new hemisphere at the start of this
new season. Hey, it's summer down here! Hey, look at all these
people! Hey, look at all these boys! The tournament is a daily
hoot, not some dour climb for dollars and prestige.
Mornings start at six at the hotel, seven on the practice court.
Matches arrive one after the other, day after day. Venus's
singles match on Center Court one day blends into her doubles
match with Serena on Court 3 the next day--the two girls with
the curious beaded hair are treated by the almost totally white
Australian crowd as if they were the Spice Girls here for a
concert--or Serena's mixed-doubles match on Court 2 or Venus's
mixed-doubles match on...when's that German going to play
Serena, anyway? Is he ducking her? This is life inside some MTV
video, sped up, recorded by a shaky handheld camera. Teenage
life to the maximum.
"Serena says she's going to what?" the sisters' mother, coach
and manager, Brandi, asks.
"She says she's going to play against a guy," a reporter says.
Brandi's eyes roll back in her head, the way a mother's eyes
will do. Uh-huh. Just don't get hurt.
The Williamses' trip started on Jan. 6. Brandi had told Venus
and Serena that the weather was going to be sunny and hot in
Australia and maybe sunglasses would be a good investment. The
girls never liked sunglasses, but Brandi had dragged them to a
high-end department store, and suddenly the displays of
sunglasses were in front of them. Hey, sunglasses! Expensive
sunglasses! Shopping! The girls were now the Sunglass
Girls--their name. They suddenly owned a lot of sunglasses in
The flight to Australia took forever, Florida to Los Angeles,
L.A. to Sydney. The girls' father, Richard, was going to go, and
the Williamses were going to travel business-class. Brandi was
astounded at the price, more than $29,000 for the family. She
thought it almost sinful. A lot of people work a year for less
than $29,000. Richard decided not to go. Brandi decided she and
the girls would travel coach for slightly more than $6,000.
Stuffed into a stuffed plane from Los Angeles--6'1" Venus in the
aisle seat to get room for her long legs--they landed in Sydney
14 hours later. Television cameras were waiting at the airport.
The reception was the start of the MTV pace. Venus! Serena!
Australia! First, the girls played in an Australian Open warmup,
the Adidas International in Sydney. Even though Venus had made
that famous run to the U.S. Open final in September, she didn't
have enough computer points to be seeded in Sydney. Serena, who
had played only 15 matches as a pro, wasn't even in the field.
To get into the draw, she had to win a qualifying match, which
The girls then stormed through the tournament. In the second
round, Venus won a dramatic 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory over Martina
Hingis, the top-ranked woman in the world. Bothered by cramps in
the final set ("I told her to drink water in this heat, she just
didn't do it," Brandi said afterward. "She'll do it now"), Venus
cried as she was treated at courtside. She wasn't crying from
pain. She was crying because she thought she might have to quit
just when she knew she was going to beat Hingis. Serena knocked
off the second-seeded Davenport in the other bracket, and for a
moment, with both Williamses in the semifinals, it looked as if
they might meet for the first time as pros, in the final.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario took care of that, beating Serena in the
semis and Venus in the final, but the idea was established that
the Sunglass Girls were here for business.
"Serena was worn out by the time she got to the semis, I think,"
Brandi said. "She played seven matches in a short time. Venus
was tired, too, I think. The final was her fifth match."
The draw for the Open was a surprise: It had the sisters playing
each other in the second round. They attacked each other as if
they were strangers, grunting on every shot, pounding away for
winners. The match was played on Center Court on the third day
of the tournament, something special for two unseeded players.
Venus won, 7-6, 6-1. The only real disappointment was that
Serena forgot her sunglasses. The pictures at the end weren't
what the girls had wanted.
"The first time they ever played each other was in a tournament
in Indian Wells, when we were living in California," Brandi
says. "Serena wasn't supposed to be in it, but she entered
herself, filled out all the forms and everything. She was eight
years old. She said she was in the tournament, and I said, 'No,
you're not,' and she told me to check with the organizers. There
she was, entered. Serena wound up losing to Venus in the final."
The Australian Open has become an extension of that first event.
Bigger tournament, bigger girls, but the same approach. The
girls' total entourage is Brandi. No agent, no manager, no
handlers. Brandi sits and watches and applauds the good shots of
both her daughters and their opponents. Venus and Serena meet
her afterward and ask her for some "units," money for food in
the players' cafeteria or the food court at the hotel.
Serena unfolds her latest plot, to play against the German.
Venus looks for her own man. The music they listen to is from
groups such as Rancid and Hole and Green Day and Bad Religion,
groups Brandi can't and doesn't want to understand. The
conversation is about jewelry and clothes and, well, the
perpetual topic of all teenage girls. Boys. Men. Serena has been
talking with Gustavo Kuerten, the cute guy who won the French
Open last year; and Venus thinks Patrick Rafter's third-round
demise in Melbourne was due mainly to a black shirt that neither
sister thought looked good on him; and together Serena and Venus
and their friend Alexandra Stephenson, a junior player from
California, have made a top-10 list of men on the tour, a list
not just for looks but also for playing ability and....
"So who's No. 1 on the list?" Serena is asked.
"Ohhhh, Pete," she replies, meaning Sampras. "Pete would beat me
6-0, 6-0 until my dying day if we played."
No, that's not right. Is it? Where's that teenage confidence?
"I take that back," Serena says. "If I played him this year, it
would be 6-0, 6-0. But next year, after I've improved, I say it
would be 6-2, 6-2."
The German will be a start.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Serena (left) and Venus drew a bead on Rika Hiraki and Mercedes Paz in winning an Open doubles match. [Serena Williams and Venus Williams playing tennis]
COLOR PHOTO: RON ANGLE Serena (top) is her sister's best friend, but in their Open match the two played like sworn enemies. [Serena Williams and Venus Williams]
The Williamses' conversation is about jewelry and clothes and,
well, the perpetual topic of all teenage girls. Boys.