1994: The Williams era begins as 14-year-old Venus debuts

by: Steve Tignor | October 01, 2015

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The elder sister launched into orbit at a tournament in Oakland. (AP)

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To some careful tennis observers, by the time she made her pro debut at age 14, Venus Williams might already have seemed a little past her prime. Four years earlier, the long, tall, beaded girl from the wrong side of the tennis tracks had been featured on the TV show Trans World Sport with her younger sister, Serena, and the two swinging sisters were famous enough to show off their precocious skills at arena-sized exhibitions. Yet before October 31, 1994, few, if anyone, had seen either of them play a match that mattered.

This was, of course, exactly as their father, Richard, had wanted it. He had pulled his daughters out of the junior tennis ranks and had them practice against older, hard-hitting boys instead. Was Venus a legitimate prodigy? Was Richard conning the world? Nobody had any way of knowing.

In 1994, when Venus turned 14, reality had to be faced, and a decision about her future had to be made. That year, the WTA was set to introduce the so-called “Capriati Rule.” In an effort to prevent another case of teen burnout like the one that had derailed Jennifer Capriati’s career the previous year, the tour would now limit the number of tournaments young players could enter and raise the age when a girl was allowed to turn pro.

According to Venus’ coach at the time, Rick Macci, Richard decided to have Venus turn pro then and there, at 14, before the rule could take effect. So, after not having played a match in more than three years at any level, Venus took her talents to the Bank of the West Classic, the WTA tournament up the coast in Oakland. Women’s tennis would never be the same.

The event, naturally, was a media circus. Twenty-four press credentials had been issued for it the year before; 252 were handed out in ’94. National TV networks came with cameras and commentators. “It was almost like Elvis arriving in the building,” Macci wrote in his autobiography, Macci Magic

At the same time, Macci secretly wondered how Venus would react to competition after playing only practice sets for so long. Even Richard, who had spent years telling anyone who would listen that his daughters would be the best in the world someday, sounded a note of nervous caution. 

The one person who didn’t appear at all worried or unsure of herself was Venus. With 300 people watching, she came out and, according to Macci, “was practicing better than she ever had in three years.”

“This was like a lion being in a cage,” Macci said, “and now you’re going to let this lion out and she gets to perform. I couldn’t believe how she was hitting the ball.”

Venus drew 57th-ranked American Shaun Stafford in her opener. Stafford was a former NCAA champion who had been ranked in the 20s at one point, but she was no match for this 14-year-old. With a logo-less racquet and clothes, Venus—already serving at 115 M.P.H.—out-slugged and outran Stafford, 6-3, 6-4. The open-stance strokes Venus used from both wings that day were startling to traditionalists, but they’re the norm on both tours today.

Her only mistake came on the changeovers. Venus, who wasn't allowed to sit down during practice workouts, stood and bounced like a boxer on the sidelines during the breaks. She didn’t know that she was supposed to sit in the chair next to her.

Venus, the tennis world learned that day, was for real. Just how real she was, though, wouldn’t become apparent until her next match, which happened to be against the No. 1 player in the world at the time, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Again, Venus showed no fear while running circles around her older opponent, and running out to a 6-3, 3-1 lead. In the stands, veteran tennis writer Bud Collins said that if Venus held on, it would be the greatest upset in spots history.

“Forget tennis,” Collins said. “Forget Ali-Frazier. Forget the ’69 Mets. The history of sports. A girl walks off the street, never playing a junior tournament in the last three and a half years, never played a pro tournament and beats the No. 1 player in the universe. If you think of it in that context, it’s make believe.”

Collins was right on both counts—it was a little too good to be true. A desperate Sanchez Vicario gave young Venus a glimpse of how the game was played at the pro level: She took a 10-minute bathroom break in the middle of the second set. “Venus thought she probably left to go eat dinner!” Macci said.

Whatever she thought was happening, it threw her off. Sanchez Vicario came back and won the last nine games of the match. Venus had left her orbit and come back to earth, but her career had been launched.

That night, Nike and Reebok each made calls to the Williams family, and a few months later Venus inked a deal with Reebok for multiple millions. In 2000, Venus would become the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open since Althea Gibson did it more than 40 years earlier. In 2002, Venus would fulfill her father’s prophecy by becoming the first black woman to reach No. 1 since the start of the WTA’s computer rankings in 1975. Two years after Arthur Ashe’s death, tennis had a new African-American star. 

What Venus showed us in Oakland remains true today. In those two matches heard round the world, she signaled that not only was she a precocious talent and a world-class athlete in the making, she was a born competitor who played her best tennis when she was on the big stage.

 

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