What’s arguably the greatest story in the history of sports took a major step forward on October 31, 1994.
With all the poise, precision and sense of the moment that would mark her tremendous career, Venus Williams stepped on to the court to play her first match as a pro. She was 14 years old. Having lived in Florida for several years, Venus had returned to her native California, set to compete at a WTA event, the Bank of the West Classic, held in Oakland.
This tournament had a strong connection to the WTA’s roots, going back to its start in January 1971—the first event of the first full calendar year of the fledgling Virginia Slims Circuit. Billie Jean King had been one of the tournament’s founders, working with future WTA executive director Jerry Diamond. The WTA’s first headquarters was in San Francisco, based there well into the ‘80s. To be at this tournament was to take in so much of what had been done to make women’s pro tennis a success, from the early days of the “Original Nine,” on through to the creation of the WTA and its growth into the multi-million-dollar, international circuit it had become by the ‘90s. The homecoming-like atmosphere made it a fitting starting point for yet another potential WTA icon.
The ’94 edition boasted a typical cross-generational slice of WTA excellence. Twenty-two-year-old Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was near the end of a career year, highlighted by title runs at Roland Garros and the US Open. Martina Navratilova had turned 38 earlier in October. This would be her last full-fledged tour event prior to an upcoming retirement ceremony at the year-end championships in New York City. And a formidable ball-striker, 18-year-old Lindsay Davenport, had already cracked the top ten.