It's a cool spring night in Compton, Calif., a rough-and-tumble community just south of Los Angeles and hard by Watts. Last year the number of murders declined slightly, to 78, but life in the city of 110,000 remains bleak. The median income for a family of four is about $13,000, dangerously near the poverty line. One young man's idea of an entrepreneurial undertaking is the drive-up drug business he has set up near the city tennis courts and playground in East Rancho Dominguez, a Hispanic enclave in Compton.
Not far away, inside a small mint-green house that has been spray-painted with black graffiti, a 10-year-old girl sleeps, untroubled by the nightmarish things occurring just outside her home. She is dreaming of wearing a white dress and playing tennis on the grass courts at Wimbledon. Of putting on a pith helmet and digging for dinosaur bones on foreign continents. And of stepping into a space suit and flying to Jupiter.
Venus Ebonistarr Williams doesn't know much about life on some planet 367 million miles away. Yet her fantasies aren't so unimaginable when you consider the improbable turns her life is taking here on earth, all because of what she can do with a tennis racket. Coached and counseled by her father, Richard, a tall, bearded, athletically gifted man of 49 who taught himself the game, Venus is the newest prodigy in a sport that seems to anoint its future stars as they emerge from the womb.
Older ball girls and ball boys want her to sign their T-shirts, though she has just learned to write in cursive script. Coaches want her to move to their camps for advanced training. Manufacturers shower her with free rackets, shoes and clothes. And agents from the world's biggest sports-management firms lobby to represent her in future deals.
No doubt about it: At the astonishing age of 10 years and 11 months, Venus is the most hotly pursued preteen in U.S. tennis history, and that includes Chris Evert; Tracy Austin, who made the cover of this magazine at 13; and Jennifer Capriati, who had an agent at 12 and made the cover last year at 13, on the occasion of her first pro tournament. Even more improbable, Venus has attained this status before playing so much as a single point in one national tournament.
It is her skills, her size and her speed that have landed Venus in the midst of this feeding frenzy, as well as the fact that she plays in Southern California, one of the toughest breeding grounds for tennis players in the country. This year, Venus has won seven of her 16 matches without losing a game and is ranked No. 1 in Southern California in the girls' 12-and-under division. "She is from California and she is from a minority background, and both of those facts mean she is going to get attention," says Seena Hamilton, founder and director of the Easter Bowl, one of the country's preeminent junior tournaments. Still, says Hamilton, "Venus is tennis's new precocity."
Patrick McGee, an agent at Advantage International, a Washington, D.C.-based sports-management firm, has heard glowing reports on Venus, but he hasn't seen her play. Still, he would love to sign her when and if she turns pro. "People are enamored of Venus because she's so young," says McGee. "In tennis these days, the younger the better. It's like Capriati wasn't enough."
The object of all this attention weighs 80 pounds and measures 64 inches—the majority of which is located in the space between her waist and her ankles. She wears her hair in braids that are sometimes cornrowed and sometimes left dangling from various parts of her head. She is a straight-A student in the fifth grade and occasionally leaves her sweater at the playground. She likes playing soccer, tag and hide-and-seek with her four sisters. When she grows up, she wants to be—in order of preference—a tennis player, an archaeologist or an astronaut.
It's not in her nature to sit still, which is why television is a bore. Unless a tennis match is on. "I look at the grips they use and their technique," says Venus, fidgeting as usual. "I try to see if they're playing smart and concentrating, and playing to their opponents' weaknesses. That's what I try to do when I play."
Unlike most players her age, Venus is aggressive on court. "If you give me a short shot, I will attack you," she says. "I'm not a baseliner who rallies. I try to get the point over with."