It would be easier to call Venus Williams a revolutionary if she didn't come with a lawyer, an accountant, a stockbroker and an omnipresent tennis father. So just call her an incandescent talent, a budding icon in cornrows who has the audacity to say, "I think I can change the game"—and might have the gifts to back those words up.
Only 14, Williams already has an image as mysterious as Greta Garbo's—largely because, until last week, her father, Richard, hadn't permitted her to play in public in three years. Further, Richard had repeatedly insisted that he would never allow his daughter to turn pro at such a young age as 14. Any parent who would, he said, "should be shot." Well, Venus made her professional debut at a tour event in Oakland, Calif., last week and caused a sensation when she defeated the world's 59th-ranked player, Shaun Stafford, in straight sets and then had second-ranked Arantxa S�nchez Vicario down a set and a service break before succumbing 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.
Regrettably, Williams's debut was as disheartening as it was momentous. This, after all, was the girl who was supposed to be different, who would buck the trend and refuse to turn pro so early. Instead, by playing in Oakland, Williams slipped in under the wire: Girls under 18 who turn pro after this year will be limited to a handful of pro events. The rule is based on a recommendation by a Women's Tennis Council-appointed panel, which found that the tour makes a variety of unhealthy demands on young girls.
There is ample evidence for that conclusion, most notably the case of Jennifer Capriati, who recently completed a stint in a Miami Beach drug rehab center. No sooner had Williams made her mark against S�nchez Vicario than Capriati, herself a onetime 14-year-old phenom, announced she would enter this week's Virginia Slims of Philadelphia. It was to be her first tournament since the 1993 U.S. Open. In short, Capriati is attempting a comeback at 18.
Is Williams tough enough to avoid flameout? Labeled a "Cinderella of the ghetto" by her father, she emerged from a public park in Compton, Calif., where, according to Richard, gang members guarded the grounds while Venus and her younger sister, Serena, who's also being groomed for tennis greatness, practiced with dead balls on cracked courts. Shortly after Venus won the Southern California girls' 12-and-under title at age 10, Richard moved the family to Florida so Venus and Serena could train with Rick Macci, who immediately put the two girls on scholarship just as he had former pupils Capriati and Mary Pierce.
Venus's tennis upbringing has been unique in one important aspect. Her father withdrew her from junior tennis in 1991 and, citing the toxic pressures of an overheated system, announced that she would not play any more junior tournaments. That decision was viewed with skepticism within the tennis community. How could Venus—growing in isolation at Macci's academy like a hothouse flower—develop into a topflight player without facing the pressures only tournament competition can provide?
A year ago Richard withdrew Venus and Serena, now 13, from Carver Middle School in Delray Beach and began teaching them at home with the help of their mother, Oracene, older sister Lyndrell, 16, and various hired tutors. Venus's education includes speaking engagements at inner-city schools. "I know I should go back there, because that's where I'm from," she says. "It's my roots."
Venus's triumphant debut seemed to vindicate Richard's methods, at least for now. Unlike other phenoms, who have been programmed only to win baseline battles, Venus has an all-court game. She is 6'1", with a serve that is already one of the best on the circuit, and in her two pro matches she rushed the net more than Steffi Graf does in a season. Still, how much Venus achieves could well depend on how sensible her program is over the next couple of years, and that depends largely on Richard.
Is Richard a worried father trying to save his child prodigy from wolfish agents and the harassing press, or is he a master manipulator? At times his behavior is baffling. He recently introduced Venus and Serena to a tennis official with the words, "Meet the white lady." During SI's interview with Venus in Oakland, she was accompanied by Richard, Oracene, Serena and three family friends. As the entourage sat down, Richard said, "Don't be intimidated. We won't hurt you."
During Venus's victory over Stafford, Richard wandered in and out of the stands, at times clapping and rooting against his daughter. "Come on, Shaun," he yelled several times. And as Venus worked on the practice court the afternoon of her second-round match, S�nchez Vicario arrived. As she waited for Venus to complete her workout, Richard strode over and pumped S�nchez Vicario's hand. "I hope you win," he said.