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Old Jul 12th, 2002, 01:06 AM   #1
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Venus & Serena Williams

A perfect match
Williams sisters team up as first family of tennis

Venus Williams congratulates her sister after Serena Williams defeated Venus to win her first Wimbledon singles title in 2002.

(CNN) -- Every July, members of Britain's royal family venture to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club to catch the finals of that most refined, tradition-laden tennis tournament -- Wimbledon.

This year, the royals witnessed the crowning achievement of two talented sisters, who consolidated their domination as the queens of the court. Venus and Serena Williams faced off in the Wimbledon finals, and Serena was triumphant, 7-6 (4), 6-3, defeating her big sister a month after she had done so at the French Open.

It was the third all-Williams Grand Slam final in 10 months, with Serena winning her second in a row. Serena has won three straight matches against Venus, who still holds a 5-4 career edge.

More than a decade ago, only one man believed these two sisters would meet on Wimbledon's manicured lawns -- their father, Richard Williams.

"Richard will say right off the bat, 'These two were brought up to be tennis stars,'" said Jon Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated.

But the Wimbledon match-up -- more so, the Williams sisters' surge through the tennis ranks -- has shocked most everyone else.

Venus and Serena have now won four of the last five, and six of the last nine Grand Slam finals, battling each other for three of those titles. This year they became the first two siblings to rank 1-2 in tennis history, trading off the top spot this summer.

"This is unheard of," says John McEnroe, a legendary tennis player turned commentator. "It's never happened in tennis, and I don't think it's happened in sports, where the number one and two have to face off against each other, and are so close, and who apparently still love each other so much."

'The next two female Michael Jordans'

Venus helps Serena adjust her hair before a 1997 practice session.

Fairly or unfairly, the sister's hometown of Compton, California, located 18 miles south of Los Angeles, is often associated with drugs, gangs and violence -- not tennis, widely considered a wealthy, white sport. But it was on the city's courts that Venus, born in June 1980, and Serena, born 15 months later, got their start.

Their father, who learned tennis largely from books and videos, began hitting balls to the girls at a court near their house before they started grammar school.

"Those tennis courts were rotten, tore up, no nets, then they did put nets up and they were steel and they'd go boom, and you'd say another gun was shooting ... it was terrible," Richard Williams said.

He also tried to teach his daughters toughness -- so they would remain strong in the face of racial slurs, cheating and the like -- and instilled in them the drive to someday rule the tennis world.

"It was almost like, 'Breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we'll be number one and two in the world,'" says Rick Macci, one of the sisters' former coaches. "This was ... arrogant, cocky, as a matter of fact: This is going to happen, there's no doubt."

The practice soon paid off and, by 1990, Venus was the top-ranked female player under 12 in southern California.

The story of these two black, inner-city phenoms captivated agents, tennis manufacturers and the media. By year's end, 10-year-old Venus had been on the front page of The New York Times and the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Richard engineered the hype machine, telling Macci and others that Venus and Serena were "the next two female Michael Jordans." His off-the-wall hyperbole, bold predictions and relentless promotion and support of his daughters quickly earned Richard Williams a reputation of his own.

"Tennis has a rich history of tennis fathers from hell," said Wertheim. "This wasn't an example of that. This was a tennis father from outer space."

Privately, Richard tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy in his daughters' lives, such as pulling them from practice to visit the mall, beach or arcade. His wife Oracene said tennis and other matters ranked a distant third on the Williams' list of priorities -- behind religion and family.

After the family moved to Florida in the early 1990s, Richard relinquished some control to professional coaches but nonetheless refused to enter Venus and Serena in junior tourneys -- an unusual move at the time -- in order to prevent the sisters from prematurely burning out from an excess of tennis.

"He was always a father, and he always treated them like kids," says Macci.

Surge to the top

Both sisters have garnered several promotional deals, including one with Wrigley that they signed in 2001. Both sisters also are ranked among Forbes magazine's top 100 wealthiest and most powerful celebrities.

On October 31, 1994, more than three years since her last competitive match, Venus Williams entered her first pro tournament -- the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland, California.

Expectations were low when the 14-year-old met Shaun Stafford, then in the world's top 60, in her first match. But Venus pounded Stafford before succumbing, with a fight, to number-two ranked Aranxta Sanchez Vicario in her next contest.

"Everybody saw Venus Williams put a scare into this top five player and said, 'You know, maybe this Richard Williams isn't so crazy after all,'" recalls Wertheim.

Serena played her first pro match in 1995, and the sisters proved to be competitive if not overpowering in the handful of tourneys they entered over the next few years. By the late 1990s, their power and athleticism had begun to blossom, as had their signature styles on and off the court.

"They were grunting, they were covering ground that no player would even try to get to, and the power -- even at age 16 -- was nothing anybody had seen before," Wertheim said.

In 1997, Venus played her first U.S. Open, advancing to the championship match -- the tourney's first unseeded finalist in nearly 40 years -- before losing 6-4, 6-0, to Martina Hingis.

Two years later, back in New York, then-16-year-old Serena beat Hingis to capture the Williams family's first Grand Slam championship and the first major title by an African-American female since Althea Gibson in 1958.

Venus won her first Grand Slam title in 2000 at Wimbledon and followed up with a U.S. Open victory later that summer. She would add two gold medals -- one in singles, the other with partner Serena in doubles -- at the Sydney Olympics.

"It's our ambition to just take over tennis," Serena said that year. "We're trying, and we're doing a decent job of it now."

No strangers to controversy
Venus Williams followed up her impressive 2000 campaign by repeating as Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ the following year. Serena, meanwhile, defeated Venus at the 2002 French Open and dethroned her sister as the world's top player following that year's Wimbledon.

By 2002, the Williams had clearly come into their own. The sisters' strong, stylish, energetic brand of tennis overwhelmed foes and wowed spectators -- except, it seemed, when they played one another.

"It's been sloppy, and there's been accusations that something is going on beforehand," says McEnroe of head-to-head contests between Venus and Serena. "It would be better if they figured out a way [to play] their best tennis against each other. I don't know if you need a little animosity or what."

Macci says when Venus and Serena were growing up, Richard Williams would try to skirt sibling rivalry by preventing his daughters from playing competitive matches against one another, which the father confirms.

"I never would allow that when they were little kids, because it would tarnish the family," Richard Williams said. "To be honest, I didn't want them to play one another head to head on the WTA tour either."

Some claimed that mentality had carried over to the pro circuit, with the sisters not entering the same events, Venus mysteriously withdrawing from a 2001 semi-final match against Serena in Indian Hills, California, and playing lackluster matches on the rare occasions they did meet.

Fellow tennis player Elena Dementieva even suggested that Richard Williams decided who would win a matchup between the girls, an accusation that he strongly denies.

"If you do that, you're going to lose the respect of one of your daughters," he said. "No, I would never tell my daughter to lose or win, under any circumstance, but I would tell them this here. When you out there, do the best you can do, and represent all people well, especially America. I never told them to fix a match under no circumstances."

Their father's increasingly eccentric behavior -- be it bad-mouthing opponents, dancing at tournaments or commenting on his plans to purchase Rockefeller Center or other wild-eyed business ventures -- only fueled the controversy.

"The only thing I have a tendency of saying is what I believe in. I notice when Muhammad Ali says what he says, people say he's crazy," Richard Williams said. "But any black person comes along in this country, and says anything, they're crazy. Well, I'm not crazy. I've got plenty of money though, but I'm not crazy."

The Williams do admit that the emotional strain of face-to-face match-ups does change the dynamic on the court. The best example may have come at the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2000, after which Serena walked off the court in tears after falling to Venus.

"Serena hates to lose, I mean, losing to Serena is almost like dying," her father said.

Just before the sisters met for the 2001 U.S. Open championship, even their father admitted to some butterflies and uncertainty, mixed with excitement.

"I've been dreaming about this all my life," Richard Williams said. "When it happened, I wasn't ready again ... It keeps catching me off guard. It's just such a thrill."

Athletic, cultural icons
More than 10 years since their lives were first cast in the public spotlight, the Williams sisters have become cultural icons, their style as much as their athletic talent making them two of the world's most visible women.

The sisters, ranked among Forbes magazine's top 100 wealthiest and most powerful celebrities, have pitched everything from Wrigley gum to their own dolls. Venus has a $40 million endorsement deal with Reebok, while Serena has inked her own multi-million dollar contract with Puma.

"Their marketability off the court will continue to grow," says Kevin Wulff, executive director of the World Tennis Association (WTA). "I think they'll break into the top 10 or top 5, which has been held by the Tigers (Woods) and Michael Jordans of the world."

The Williams marketing success stems in part from the fact they don't look like a stereotypical tennis player. Their characteristic flair is no accident: Venus and Serena have taken an intense interest in fashion, even planning events around their class schedules at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. Their mother says it's part of preparing for life after tennis.

"That's always been a major focus of ours, for the transition out of tennis, because you're only a star for so long, and then what do you have next?" Oracene Williams said. "So you have to make preparations early for that."

Millions worldwide have been captivated by the whole package: the sisters' tennis skills, unique styles and personal stories. Much like Tiger Woods and golf, the allure has invigorated efforts to hook urban children on tennis and attracted "a tremendous amount of non-tennis sports fans" to the game, says U.S. Tennis Association Chief Executive Arlen Kantarian.

"It's not just the (sisters') race, it's the prestige of tennis -- making it a cooler, hipper sport," says Wertheim.

Given their remarkable development in recent years, the sport's toughest challenge may be finding players who can compete with Venus and Serena. Or better yet, others believe the sport's best hope lies in developing a high-quality, on-court rivalry between the sisters from Compton.

"It has the best potential to be a great rivalry," says Serena. "The best part ... is that we're sisters, and we live together, and nothing like this has ever happened before. It's interesting, it's very interesting."
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