Venus Williams signs autographs after winning her WTA debut On October 31, 1994.

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.

Venus speaks with press at the El Mont Tennis Center, accompanied by a 13-year-old Serena and their father Richard.

Venus speaks with press at the El Mont Tennis Center, accompanied by a 13-year-old Serena and their father Richard.

Advertising

As a Bay Area resident, I’d covered this tournament since the early ‘80s and was excited to write about Venus’ debut. So were others. Venus in Oakland was a tennis version of the Beatles coming to America. More than 250 media were credentialed, ten times the previous year’s figure. In the days leading up to the tournament, she spoke at a local school and hit balls at a public park. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler wrote, “Is 14 too early? Who knows? Genius has its own timetable.”

Finally, it was time to play—Monday night, October 31. The setting was the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Perhaps due to the 45,000 people gathered for a Rolling Stones concert at the adjacent Oakland Alameda County Stadium, only 900 fans witnessed Venus’ debut.

Her opponent was 59th-ranked Shaun Stafford, a former standout at the University of Florida who’d won the NCAA singles title in 1988 and earlier in ’94 reached the fourth round at Roland Garros.

But from the start, it was clear Venus was unfazed by neither Stafford nor the situation. Powerful strokes, superb court coverage skills and tons of energy—Venus not even sitting on changeovers—took her to a 6-3, 6-4 victory. “I wasn’t sure how I’d do,” said Williams in the New York Times article about the match.

"For her to be that good at 14 is awesome,” said Stafford. “When I was 14, I was immature, but this girl's mature. It's good to see she is in fact ready for the pros."

Following that impressive debut, Venus’ next match was arguably just as remarkable. Versus Sanchez Vicario—this time in front of 6,000 people—Williams took a 6-2, 3-1 lead, only to lose the next eleven games. Following the match, Williams said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever have anything to fear. Maybe I’m just too young right now. I think my game is solid.”