This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
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.