Long before they became the beaded divas of tennis, Venus and Serena Williams made a prediction to anyone willing to listen: Someday they would alter the sport's complexion, dominate the field, and run neck and neck as the two best players in the world. For years, even after it was clear that the Williamses were endowed with ungodly talent, their soothsaying was dismissed as the ranting of callow, hyperconfident teenagers. How, after all, could they become champions if they were cocooned from the junior tennis establishment? How could they fulfill their immense potential if their father, who had no background in tennis, was their primary coach? How could they amass ranking points on the pro circuit if they curtailed their schedules to avoid falling behind in school? "No one seemed to enjoy our comments, and people were pretty cynical," says Venus. "But we're showing that we're capable of doing what we always said we would."
In a match in which the phrase advantage Williams meant nothing and everything, Venus beat Serena 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, in the final of the Lip-ton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., on Sunday. The occasion certainly had novelty appeal: It was the first time two sisters had battled for a pro women's tennis title since 19-year-old Maud Watson beat her 26-year-old sibling, Lilian, to win Wimbledon in 1884. But the intra-Williams final was less about history than about the future. "The way we're both playing, it was inevitable we'd meet in a final," says Venus, who's 18 and ranked No. 6. "And it's inevitable we'll meet again."
In reaching the last round of the biggest event on the calendar after the majors—the Lip ton was attended by every player in the women's top 10—the Williamses played a harder, heavier and deeper game than the rest of the field. They cranked more aces than any two other players in the draw. The opponents they left in their wake had names such as Hingis, Seles, Novotna and Graf, winners of 36 Grand Slam singles titles among them, but these champions faced an arsenal more potent than anything they'd seen before. "With their power and their ground strokes, they have a tough combination," Seles said of the Williamses after getting waxed 6-2, 6-3 by Serena in the round of 16. "I think all of the other players are seeing that."
The missiles continued to fly in Sunday's encounter, if with considerably less accuracy. The match featured some electrifying points, but overall it was a ragged display that had the feel of an exhibition. Although the sisters denied that either nerves or family dynamics affected their play, they committed a ghastly 107 unforced errors and lacked the fist-pumping intensity they had displayed earlier in the tournament. "I definitely didn't play very well, making way too many errors," said Serena, 17, who dropped to 0-3 against her sister but rose in the rankings to No. 11. "But when I'm playing someone, I'm just playing the ball. We both wanted to treat it like any other match."
They were the only ones. The family affair was a media bonanza, especially for Fox, which decided before the tournament to televise the women's final in the prime Sunday slot and air the men's championship match—which ended up pitting Richard Krajicek against unknown Sebastien Grosjean—on Saturday. The sister-act final was yet another boon for the WTA Tour, which now has the most disparate collection of stars and rivalries in its history. It was nirvana for the fans, most of whom were rooting for a Williams-Williams final all week and some of whom were so delirious with Williamsmania that they lined up at a booth before Sunday's match and paid $5 a braid to get their hair done like Venus and Serena.
No one relished the day more than the finalists' father, Richard. Often misperceived as Richard III, he's more Richard the Lionhearted, and he made no effort to conceal his immense pride. The paterfamilias drove around the Crandon Park complex all week in a black Mercedes mini-van adorned with enormous decals of his daughters' faces on the side windows. In the stands before Sunday's match he held up a sign that read WELCOME TO THE WILLIAMS SHOW!! He even had the words I TOLD YOU SO printed on a T-shirt, but he decided against wearing it. "I had it out," he said between drags on a menthol cigarette. "Then I remembered my mama taught me not to brag like that."
For all that is bizarre about Richard—over the weekend he announced that Steffi Graf, not Venus or Serena, is his favorite player on the tour, and he said he has little time to contemplate tennis because he's considering buying Rockefeller Center for $3.9 billion—he has tire Midas touch with his daughters' careers. Granted, it doesn't hurt that Venus is 6'1" and 170 sinewy pounds and that Serena is 5'10" and built like an Olympic swimmer. But since introducing his daughters to tennis on the public courts in Compton, Calif., Richard has flouted convention and ignored advice from the tennis establishment. He still devises seemingly harebrained schemes for his daughters that have his wife, Oracene, rolling her eyes. "There's a method to my madness," he says. "The goals were for my girls to be good people and also to be the most powerful tennis players out there."
They are both. The Williams sisters have power in such abundance that the standard criticism of their games—that they are tactically deficient—is almost moot. When you can hit screaming winners from four feet behind the baseline, crush untouchable 115 mph serves and reach the net in four loping strides, what's the point of learning to play positional tennis? Telling the Williamses they need to learn to massage a point is like telling Mark McGwire to work on his drag bunting. "Everything's working for them," says Graf, who lost to Venus 6-2, 6-4 in the semifinals. "They go for their shots, they're taking risks, and they don't really have a weakness."
What's more, in a sport that's still bedeviled by burnout, abusive fathers, creepy coaches and general melodrama, the Williams sisters are conspicuously well-adjusted. Serena recently received her high school diploma and, having learned French, is trying to teach herself to speak Portuguese. Venus just finished reading a book on King Ludwig II and plans to take courses on fashion design in the fall. "If I'm not enhancing myself," says Venus, "I feel like I'm wasting my time."
Perhaps because of resentment of their current and pending success, Venus and Serena have few friends on the tour. Much has been made of their shatterproof confidence—or their cockiness, depending on how charitable you are—but they are no haughtier than fellow teen queens Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova. The sisters parry questions about their insularity in the locker room with a reflexive, "Everyone's entitled to their opinions." Others in the Williams camp, however, are more outspoken.