When that sentence is complete, Venus swings her legs onto the sofa and bobs her head from side to side, as if a song is playing inside it. The head-bobbing lasts a few seconds. Then she shifts her body a bit and tugs at her pink stretch pants. A tennis motif dominates the living room. Tennis magazines and empty racket covers lie on the sofa. In one corner, a bunch of old rackets are piled in a box. In another corner, a big red-and-white ball machine tries unsuccessfully to look inconspicuous.
Venus is like a movie that Hollywood goes gaga over even before it premieres. She has positive buzz. It began three years ago, after John McEnroe and Pete Sampras saw her hitting with Paul Cohen, a teaching pro who specializes in junior players, at a private court in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Cohen had given Venus a few lessons and had advised Richard on coaching strategy. Last July, during the Wimbledon fortnight, shortly after Venus had won her 17th singles title in less than a year—the Southern California 10-and-under championship—she was featured in The New York Times in a piece that was in close proximity to stories about Capriati and Steffi Graf. (Two months ago The Times ran a piece about Venus on the front page of the entire paper.) Tennis legends Dodo Cheney and Jack Kramer saw her play later in the year at a celebrity event in Los Angeles and said she performed like someone at least four years older. Kramer thought she was 14 until someone set him straight.
Such notices have landed Venus on the A lists for celebrity events and exhibitions around Southern California. Last July Jeanne Austin, Tracy's mother, saw Venus in action at her daughter's charity tournament for underprivileged children. Jeanne told her son Jeff, another agent at Advantage International, that Venus was "extremely talented." He in turn passed the word along to McGee, who, as it turned out, had already been pursuing Venus. When McGee first called Compton to make his pitch and to arrange for Venus to meet one of his clients, 1990 Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison, he didn't know that his competitors from IMG and ProServ had already been in touch with the Williams family.
Garrison finally met Venus at the Nancy Reagan Just Say No to Drugs celebrity tournament at the Riviera Country Club in L. A. last October. Venus hit with Garrison and was photographed with the tournament hostess and her husband. Garrison also watched Venus and her nine-year-old sister, Serena, who has since replaced Venus as the No. 1-seeded 10-and-under girl in Southern California, play doubles against Steve Garvey and Bruce Jenner. "For 10 years old, Venus is exceptional," says Garrison. "She would have beaten the 10-year-old Zina into the ground."
Jimmy Evert, Chris's father and Capriati's first coach, saw Venus show off her strokes in Fort Lauderdale last December. Evert's son John, the IMG agent who snared Capriati's signature, had visited Compton and invited the Williams family to Florida. While there, Venus met Chris, whom Richard calls "tennis's royalty," and spent 90 minutes on the clay courts at Holiday Park, where Jimmy has been the pro for 42 years. "She volleyed, which most youngsters don't do at that age," says Jimmy. "And she hit the ball very hard. She could be favorably compared to Jennifer."
John Wilkerson, the Houston-based coach who introduced Garrison and Lori McNeil, another touring pro, to tennis, found nary a weakness in Venus's game. "She's headed for Grand Slam titles," says Wilkerson.
And who knows, maybe even to performances on payper-view, now that a certain wirehaired boxing promoter has ingratiated himself with the Williamses. Don King showed up in Compton a few weeks ago with a limo and took everyone—Venus, her sisters and her parents—to lunch at a Los Angeles soul-food restaurant. After lunch, the family decided that King would be a suitable tour guide when Venus goes to New York City in September to catch the end of the U.S. Open.
Richard, who owns a private-security company with six employees, laughs off suggestions that associating with King would be more ill-advised than leaving his daughter alone in a room filled with tabloid reporters. "People should be more concerned with what we're trying to get from Mr. King," he says. "He's the one with the millions."
To many people, though, what's happening to Venus is hardly a laughing matter. "She's 10 years old and agents are talking to her?" says Dennis Ralston, the former Davis Cup player and Wimbledon finalist who's now the men's coach at SMU, in disbelief. "What's happened to our sport?" he says. "How's that kid going to enjoy anything that a 10-year-old should enjoy?"
Ralston complains that too many young players and their parents are rushing heedlessly toward pro tennis, rather than participating at the college level for at least a year or two, because they are seduced by the success of a handful of teens. Agents, he says, indulge those fantasies. "They're looking to sign large numbers in hopes of getting the next Pete Sampras in the bunch," says Ralston.