This may well have been his last, best shot. Chang is 25, and his legs have endured an unmatched pounding. When they met in the semifinal, Rafter took Chang apart, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. As 23,000 people streamed out of Ashe Stadium, Carl Chang, Michael's brother and coach, didn't move. He sat in his seat staring straight ahead for more than a half hour as darkness fell and the janitors picked up cups and paper around him. "Carl loves me so much," Michael said. "I think he's hurting more for me."
A day later Rafter was on the phone to his family in Australia. "You're not crying back there, are you, Mom?" he said. His hand on the receiver was shaking.
In the long run, though, few are likely to remember the 1997 Open as the lost and found of long-held ambitions. This was the tournament of instant gratification, and no one in tennis has ever scored as quickly, as resoundingly, as Williams. "Venus—holy mackerel! That's like a TV show," said tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who worked briefly with her two years ago.
But a show like none had seen before. Ever since her father pulled her out of junior tennis at age 11 to concentrate on school, Venus has been the sport's great experiment. No player of the modern game, male or female, has achieved stature without testing and refining his or her game in juniors. Mary Pierce played just two years of juniors and still thinks she's suffering for not playing more. Lindsay Davenport, who played juniors from age 8 to 15, didn't believe Williams could ever make it. "It's amazing she can be this competitive," Davenport said.
Much has been made of Richard Williams's lack of tennis knowledge, but Rick Macci, who began coaching Venus in 1991 after the family moved to Florida, points out that Venus didn't go straight from ghetto to great strokes. "Six hours a day, six days a week for four years," says Macci of Venus's practice schedule under his tutelage, which ended in 1995. "There wasn't a day that the girl wouldn't hit 200 serves."
Still, practice is no substitute for match play, and few tennis observers were stunned when Williams, who earned her high school diploma from a private school this year and has been taking courses at a community college near the family's secluded and expansive house, struggled through her limited tournament schedule. She seemed destined to end her debut year on the tour as little more than a mouthy bust. Before the U.S. Open, Venus hadn't reached one final and had gone 10-9, with early exits at the French Open and Wimbledon. Her athleticism and power were undeniable, but she seemed almost willfully lost on the court—at one point she served with a broken racket string in her first-round loss at Wimbledon—and showed little desire to construct points. Yet she acted as if she were already the brashest of champions, predicting that she and her 15-year-old sister, Serena, would soon be battling it out for No. 1, and working opponents with an in-your-face style women's tennis rarely sees.
After beating Anne Miller in straight sets in a first-round match at Indian Wells last March, Williams greeted a stunned Miller at the net by saying, "You beat my sister. I owed you." At the same tournament, upon encountering Williams on the grounds, Davenport said hello and, Davenport says, "She went, 'Pooosh.' I learned not to do that again." At the Lipton tournament two weeks later, Williams stared down Jennifer Capriati when the two passed in a hallway under the stadium; the next night Williams beat her in three sets. "I said once to Venus, 'Hi,' and she didn't say it back," says Seles. "She seems to be going all the time with her sister, her mom, too. That's what family is for. They stay in their own little separate group."
By the time the Open began, a consensus was building: Williams needed a coach, badly, and was probably too proud to admit it. The phenom regarded as most likely to stir the Open pot was either 16-year-old Anna Kournikova of Russia, who made a blitz into the Wimbledon semifinals, or 15-year-old Mirjana Lucic of Croatia, who, Hingis announced early in the Open, is "even better than Kournikova and Williams."
Then something strange happened. Kournikova won one match and then lost. Lucic won two matches and then lost. Williams won two matches—against Larisa Neiland and Gala Leon Garcia—and learned. Oracene noticed it at a practice before the match with Leon Garcia: Venus began taking speed off her serve and her groundstrokes and started mixing her shots. "Something in her head finally clicked," said Oracene, who was coaching Venus at the Open, although she, like Richard, has no formal tennis training. "How not to rush, how to play the game. Just like it clicked with Hingis last year."
That shift, plus her reputation, gave Williams an aura usually surrounding only Top 5 players. "We create it in our own heads: We're playing Venus!" said Joannette Kruger after losing to Williams, 6-2, 6-3 in the fourth round. "Yes, it's crazy. I don't know what to think of it." As if to be even more infuriating, Williams, up 3-0 at one point against Kruger, suddenly grinned at her on a changeover. "It came over as, Do you have anything else to show me?" Kruger said.