Serena Williams has emerged from her sister's shadow to capture the past four Grand Slams and become a coveted endorser
BY LINDA ROBERTSON
Her 120-watt smile is as powerful and unavoidable as one of her 120-mph serves. It comes at us from magazine covers. From toothpaste boxes. From Wrigley's chewing gum and McDonald's commercials. From the set of a sitcom.
Whether she's wearing a white bikini, black cat suit or silver tiara, Serena Williams is smiling, and she doesn't figure to stop smiling anytime soon.
Williams has become the most recognizable, sought-after and adored female athlete in the world.
She's rich, winning a record $3.9 million on the Women's Tennis Association Tour last year and now negotiating for a shoe contract that will pay her at least 10 times that, but the money hasn't corrupted her smile. She's famous, shuttling to photo shoots as swiftly as she chases down drop shots, but the fame hasn't turned her smile haughty.
Williams and her sister, Venus, are living the ''Cinderella from the ghetto'' fairy tale their father, Richard, foretold, in which they go from the gang-hangout courts of inner-city Los Angeles to No. 1 and No. 2 in a country club sport. She's also fulfilling another of his predictions -- that his youngest daughter, the ''little sister,'' the one who was always ''meaner'' than Venus, would one day be the best.
Williams' emergence from the shadows of her statuesque sister and eccentric father can be traced directly to Key Biscayne, one year ago, during the semifinals of the NASDAQ-100 Open, when she defeated Venus 6-2, 6-2, and went on to win the tournament. The semifinal marked the first time Williams beat Venus in a complete WTA match (Venus also lost to her sister when she withdrew at Indian Wells because of injury).
A role reversal ensued. From the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, Serena went to Paris, London, New York and Melbourne and won four straight Grand Slam titles, all over Venus, all in straight sets.
''It has never been easy for me to play Venus,'' she said. ``She's difficult to beat, and also it was a little bit of a mental block for me. To finally win a match against Venus in a big tournament was a confidence booster, like, it's OK to do well against your sister. That was a big turning point where I was able to do what I knew I could.''
When she opens her defense of the NASDAQ title on Friday less than 90 miles from her home in Palm Beach Gardens, Williams, 21, will be looking to extend her dominance of the game. She is 11-0 this year, and her goal is to finish 2003 undefeated, which would be unprecedented in the 35-year-old history of open tennis. The record is Martina Navratilova's 86-1 mark in 1983. Steffi Graf went 86-2 in 1989. Williams was 56-5 last year.
''Everyone thinks that goal is absurd and ridiculous, and you have to understand, I don't expect to reach it, and if I do, then it would be unbelievable because I don't think anyone can win everything -- even Edwin Moses had to lose eventually,'' she said. ``But I set my goal last year just as ridiculously high after I didn't play the Australian Open. I said, `Well, I'm going to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and that's that. I didn't think I'd actually reach that goal, but I wanted to see how close I could get.''
Rick Macci, a former coach of the Williams sisters, said Serena is no longer suppressing her natural confidence.
''Venus was always in the limelight and Serena was always the little sister,'' said Macci, who runs an academy at Pompano Beach. ``Athletically, Serena was bringing more to the table, but Venus was more together mentally. The girls are so close, like peas in a pod. But in the last 18 months Serena has taken off because she's competing for herself. She's grown up.''
Williams calls her feat of becoming just the fifth woman to hold all four major titles simultaneously the ''Serena Slam.'' After her victory in January's Australian Open, she is in position to win a calendar Grand Slam as well.
'I know what Tiger Woods said once: `I have all four trophies in my living room, so it is a Grand Slam,' and that's exactly how I feel,'' she said. ``I do own the Grand Slam right now, until the French Open comes around, so I'm trying to savor it as long as I can.''
In terms of her appeal as a sports celebrity, Williams has already won the ''Glam Slam.'' She's a ubiquitous newsstand presence, whether it's Vogue or ESPN The Magazine or commanding her own spread in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.
She has entered the realm of Tiger, Shaq and Ronaldo, where the world is on a first-name basis with her.
''Serena has everything it takes to transcend traditional cultural and age demographics and sports star limitations,'' said Stephanie Tolleson, senior corporate vice president at IMG, one of the agencies that represents Williams. ``Her tennis accomplishments are matched by her great sense of humor and quick mind, making her appealing on and off the court.''
Williams has endorsement deals with Close-Up, Wilson, McDonald's and Wrigley, and is in the midst of negotiating with Puma and other shoe companies on a deal that should surpass Venus' five-year, $40 million Reebok contract.
While Venus, 22, runs her own interior design company, Serena has pursued an acting career. She played a kindergarten teacher in an episode of My Wife and Kids.
She says she's a football fan, and has her own fans in the NFL as well. She used to date Washington Redskin LaVar Arrington, and SI reported that Tampa Bay Buccaneer Keyshawn Johnson sent her 20 dozen roses before a match. She and Johnson were seen together at post-Super Bowl parties, and she was wearing his jersey at the Scottsdale, Ariz., tournament three weeks ago.
Williams and Venus were honored with the NAACP's President's Award at the same ceremony where Spike Lee and Danny Glover also won awards.
As for the whiners who say the Williams' dominance is dull, Williams counters that they have attracted a whole new set of fans to tennis.
'There's not a day that goes by that I don't run into someone who says, `I never watched tennis until you guys came, and if you guys aren't playing, I still don't watch.' It doesn't necessarily have to be African-American. I get that from everyone.''
Serena has always been more outspoken and witty than Venus.
''When you win and you're an interesting person, too, it adds up to a charisma that's infectious,'' said Keven Davis, the family's attorney who has known the sisters since they were 7 years old.
``One of the best things about all that's happened to Serena is that it hasn't changed her personality.
The only thing that changed was that she decided to really put her mind to tennis.''
Williams said the transformation in her dedication to the game occurred after an ankle injury forced her to pull out of the 2002 Australian Open and her frustration with injuries and inconsistency reached a peak.
Although she turned the tide against Venus in 2002, going from 1-5 vs. her sister to 5-6, she said their relationship hasn't changed.
''If anything, we're closer now,'' Williams said. ``To us, tennis isn't No. 1 in our lives. We always try to realize that family is first. We still do everything together. We just hang out and we watch tons and tons of TV. She'll cook for me.
``I can't say I'm better than Venus. I've just been winning. I think we're both doing really well and anyone would love to be in our shoes right now.''
Williams told Oprah Winfrey there used to be ''two Venus Williams in the Williams family'' until about two years ago, when she stopped trying to emulate her older sister.
''I think I established my identity a little bit ago, and it was hard because I'm so close to Venus and I always wanted to be like her,'' she said.
Davis said the sisters love each other more than they love to win.
''When tennis is all said and done, they'll still have each other,'' he said. ``You don't see rivalry or jealousy between them. They're both so well-rounded, smart, nice. They never forget where they came from.''
Macci said the sisters lose their killer instinct when they play each other, resulting in error-filled, ''crummy'' matches instead of what could be ``the greatest show on earth.''
But he also sees them dominating for as long as they want because no one else has their combination of speed, strength and size.
''Serena has taken it to another level because she has that Muhammad Ali attitude and she's the best competitor out there,'' Macci said. ``She has the best serve in women's tennis; she hits the corners and you can't jump on her second serve anymore.
``She can improvise shots from difficult positions. And even though her forehand can be a little dodgy, her running forehand is a unique shot. She takes it so early and is able to flow through the ball.''
Mary Joe Fernández said those who see Williams as merely a slugger are missing the way she's able to control points.
''Jennifer [Capriati] and Lindsay [Davenport] might even hit the ball just as hard, but Serena is hitting more winners even though in her high-risk game she's going to have a certain number of errors,'' Fernández said.
``She and Venus keep improving. That's the scary thing. I see in Serena's eyes a different look. She wants it more than anybody else.''
Macci credits the sisters for handling the pressure of being black stars in a predominantly white sport, of sharing the top ranking with a sibling and of living up to their father's prediction of greatness.
''Some people just see the muscles, but what's inside these kids is what has enabled them to answer every single challenge,'' he said.
``I don't see them having Steffi-type careers in terms of longevity -- they have too many interests -- so we better enjoy it while we can.''