They Just Can't Touch This - Venus
Williams looks back from the summit
In an exclusive interview, the Wimbledon champion and new world No 1 reflects on her predecessors at the pinnacle of the game
By John Roberts in Dubai
25 February 2002
Venus Williams may be the world No 1 today, but enough is enough. It was time to confront her with the injustice of there being two great tennis players in the same house in America, Venus and her younger sister, Serena, when there is not a single female contender to write home about in the whole of Britain. There ought to be a law against it. Two-player families should be banned.
She responded with a hearty laugh, prompting a change of tack in an attempt to dig up evidence of normality in the lives of the multi-millionaire superstar siblings. For example, do they, back home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, have a rota for the household chores or do they play it by ear? ("It's your turn for the dishes, Serena, and I did the vacuum cleaning yesterday...").
Venus shook her head. "No, we don't clean. Using a vacuum cleaner gives me a sore back. We do tidying. We keep our closets clean and all that kind of thing. But as far as dishes, I won't wash a dish. And Serena doesn't vacuum. We have a dishwashing machine, but I don't like those things."
Surely there must be points of contention off the court as well as on it? "Serena never buys groceries," Venus said. "I think I've spoiled her. I'll go to the store and I'll buy them, and I'll make sure the house is stocked with eats and drinks, everything. And I'll look in the fridge and say: 'I just bought three bottles of orange juice, where are they?' And I just bite my lip and buy more."
Serena may find the cupboards bare for the next week or so. Venus would like to "go into a little coma" on returning from the Dubai Duty Free Open to help her recover from "mental exhaustion", tendinitis and muscle strains after an early-season campaign which has enabled her to climb to the summit of the game, adding prestige to her $9.6m (£6.7m) prize-money, plus further millions from endorsements.
Venus Williams is the first African-American player to be ranked No 1 by the computer. Not even Arthur Ashe achieved that. So how old was she when she first thought about becoming No 1? "About six," she said softly, smiling mischievously and recalling her childhood on the park courts of Compton, California.
"When I was young I thought I could beat any player, I really did. I thought I could beat John McEnroe. I thought I was the tops. I thought I was everything. I found out I wasn't, but it was nice. My Mum and Dad said: 'So you think you can beat John McEnroe? Well, maybe you can do it'."
Asked to discuss the nine world No 1s who have preceded her since the computer rankings were introduced to the women's game in 1975 (five years before Williams was born), she said her knowledge of some was sketchy, starting with Chris Evert, the cool blonde from Florida who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles and spawned a generation of American baseliners.
"I only remember her last major match in her career [a loss to Zina Garrison in the quarter-finals of the 1989 US Open]. I was nine. That's when I first remember tennis. Really all I know about her is pretty much what I've heard, because I've never seen her play except in television clips."
Martina Navratilova, the nine-times Wimbledon champion, presents a sharper image. "She revolutionised the game, for sure, made people work harder. She was the forerunner of power tennis."
Navratilova said in her day people used to remark about her fitness, power and athleticism, but the 6ft 1in Williams has taken the game to a new level. "It is definitely a different game," Williams agreed. "I think it would be a shame if tennis had regrets, but just like everything else in this world, technology and all that kind of thing, everything's moving forward. So that's what's going to happen. After me there will be better girls, and I'll just sit back and watch it."
Tracy Austin, a teenage wonder with bunches in her hair and braces on her teeth, won the US Open singles title in 1979 and 1981. "I only know what I've heard about her," Williams said. "I've never really seen her play, except for one match on Classic Sports on television. Tennis has changed a lot since then. At that time she was the cream of the crop."
There is no doubt in Williams' mind about Steffi Graf, who in 1988 won a "golden Grand Slam" of the four major championships plus the Olympic Games singles title in Seoul. "She was really a great champion. Twenty-two Grand Slams. I've got four," she said in a mock whimper. "I was hoping to get a few more. I'm not sure if I'll ever get that achievement, but I've done well for myself. More than anything, I think Steffi really had the mental game down pat."
Williams also admires Monica Seles, the winner of nine Grand Slam singles titles, whose career was all but wrecked by a stabbing in the back by a deranged spectator. Seles remains a rival at the age of 28. "I really think she was one of the only ones to challenge Steffi Graf, because Steffi Graf was dominating the game and Navratilova and Evert and all the other players couldn't touch her. But Monica came along and offered the first challenge. So she did a lot for the game."
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, the Barcelona retriever, a winner of four Grand Slam singles titles and twice a runner-up at Wimbledon, "made the best of her game and her abilities, and she gave it her all. When she gets to the end of her career she will know that she did everything that she could do."
Martina Hingis, unlike the Williams sisters, came through the junior ranks – she was 12 when she won the girls' title at French Open – and became the youngest player to win a Grand Slam singles championship (16 years, three months, 26 days at the 1997 Australian Open) since the 15-year-old Lottie Dod at Wimbledon in 1887. Hingis last won a Grand Slam singles title, her fifth, at the 1999 Australian Open. In spite of her clever game, she has struggled to overcome the bigger hitters.
"When Martina came on the scene people had a tough time figuring out her game, and that gave her a lot of success," Williams said. "More than anything, you can see that she loves winning, she hates losing, and that contributed a lot to her success. I think she came in at a great time. Steffi was injured, and the top player at that point was maybe Arantxa. Lindsay [Davenport] was still developing. I was in high school. But I think when Martina capitalised on her game that was a great time."
Lindsay Davenport, tall and powerful, worked hard to trim her figure and improve her mobility. She has been rewarded with three Grand Slam singles titles: the United States Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open. "The thing about Lindsay is that she's always hit the ball, win, lose or draw. That's really the sign of a champion, someone who's going to go for it all the way. Eventually it paid off."
Jennifer Capriati, the troubled teenager who redeemed herself in her mid-twenties by winning the Australian Open and French Open singles titles last year, successfully defended the Australian championship last month, defeating Hingis in the final for the second consecutive time.
"Jennifer came back and made it happen at one of the most competitive points in women's tennis history," Williams said. "So that's no fluke at all. She's probably making a lot more of her decisions and doing things that make her comfortable."
Before the advent of computer rankings, generations of women players were acknowledged to be the best of their time. Among these was Althea Gibson, an African-American who learned the game on the public courts of Harlem, New York, and had to overcome racial prejudice before she could make her mark in the major championships.
The athletic Gibson was aged 28 when her breakthrough came at the French Championships in 1956. She went on to win singles titles at Wimbledon and the US Championships in both 1957 and 1958. Williams, who has talked with Gibson, is aware of the debt today's multi-milllionaires owe the pioneers, not least Billie Jean King, winner of a record 20 Wimbledon titles between 1961 and 1979 (six singles, 10 women's doubles and four mixed doubles), and a driving force in the campaign for equal prize-money.
"Tennis has a great history," Williams said. "I actually read Billie Jean's book [You've Come a Long Way, Baby]. I liked it a lot. I stayed up late reading it to finish it."
King's influence now extends to the United States Fed Cup and Olympic teams. "She's a great captain," said Williams. "I've never seen anyone who loves the game as much as Billie Jean King. I couldn't come close."
Williams' next major goal is to add the French Open to her roll of honour. "I've just had bad luck there," she said, "and I've made bad decisions. In '97 I just didn't know how to win. In '98 I tried to hit the ball too hard, because the previous time I played on clay I hit it too soft. In '99 I got over-confident. I had three match points. In 2000 I was just coming back from injury. My mind was there, but I just couldn't get my game to do what I wanted. I could visualise it, but I just couldn't do it."
Last year she lost in the first round to Barbara Schett, of Austria, 6-4, 6-4. "I had one bad day – finished. I couldn't hit a ball in that day. Grass, or hard court, or indoors, I wouldn't have won that day. I've just got to get myself together."
Like at Wimbledon. "Wimbledon's my first love. You could end your career after you win Wimbledon. A good result, semi-finals, is just not enough once you've won. I'm hoping to garner it for the next 10 or 15 years, just hold on to it, if I could," she said, hugging herself as if the Venus Rosewater Dish was right there in the clutches of Venus Ebone Starr Williams.