A first week of rain did Mother Wimbledon no good. Day after day, tennis's grandest dame burrowed under cover, peeking out at the plunking puddles, taking blow after blow from an impatient world. Tear up the grass! Throw a dome over the tournament! Shove it into the Thames! cried the complainers. Nearly three days passed with no play, and Mother Wimbledon limped into Saturday praying for sun and a savior. What it got was a sky sliding from black to gray to the sickly beige of an English smile. What it got, when tennis finally began, was Venus Williams.
She was like nothing Wimbledon had ever seen. Ranked 59th in the world and with nary a tournament title to her credit, the 17-year-old Williams made her debut at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club with the subtlety of a crashing space station. With Williams's Monday match washed all the way to Saturday, the British press gorged itself on Sister from Another Planet morsels: Venus's girlhood practices in Compton, Calif., dodging bullets; her refusal, as a Jehovah's Witness, to celebrate her own birthday; and, of course, her clattering headful of beads—green, purple and white, in honor of the tournament.
She presented, all in all, a wonderful show of mindless arrogance. Sitting next to her 15-year-old sister, Serena, at a press conference before her first match, Venus serenely answered questions about her father and coach, Richard, who had inexplicably stayed home; about her slow emergence on the tour, her visit to the Tower of London, her declarations that she and Serena will one day battle it out for No. 1. She responded to charges of cockiness—Brenda Schultz-McCarthy reported last week that Venus had said, "Don't touch me" at the net during an earlier tournament—by saying, "I don't hold great conversations. Actually, I don't hold conversations at all." Asked if she could save U.S. tennis, she said, "Yes, I think so." Asked if she admired any other players, she said, "No, I don't."
Such talk set up Saturday's first-round match against 91st-ranked Magdalena Grzybowska of Poland as a routine trouncing. With her mother, Oracene, and Serena watching, Venus unrolled a 6-4, 2-0 lead in the sweet confines of Court No. 1, forehand booming, serve at 114 mph, beads jangling. Grzybowska evened things at 2-all in the second, but Venus pushed her to break point and seemed ready to put things away. Serena, face hidden by a sheet of white beads herself, pulled out A Tale of Two Cities and began to read. "I read the other one, Great Expectations, but I like this one better," Serena said after the match.
Grzybowska hammered an overhead smash, then hit an inventive drop shot to hold serve and go up 3-2. Serena put her book away. Venus fell apart. Grzybowska, never intimidated by Venus's power, began ripping backhands deep and down the line. Venus's serve crumbled. She kept hitting the ball to that laser backhand. She lost seven straight games, and she suddenly looked lost. Early in the third set Venus went lunging for a shot and ended up facedown on the turf. Three times in the third she had Grzybowska down break point at love and couldn't convert. By the time it was over, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, Williams stood revealed as a huge talent with little idea of how to adjust to an opponent or adversity. "I was surprised," Grzybowska said. "I don't know why she was playing like that. My backhand is my best shot."
Grzybowska met Williams at the net, curious to hear something outrageous. Williams said nothing. Later, players kept coming to Grzybowska, full of joy and congratulations. "It was very funny," Grzybowska said. "Because of all the stuff in the newspapers about her...I guess everybody thought it was too much."
It stayed that way for one more day. VENUS OUT OF ORBIT! screamed one Sunday headline, VENUS HAS TUMBLED BACK DOWN TO EARTH crowed another. Williams didn't seem to care. "It's my first Wimbledon," she said. "There will be many more."