Michael Wilbon

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Young, Gifted and Black

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, September 3, 1997; Page C1

NEW YORK ó At 6 feet 2, sheís taller than just about all the other players. Sheís definitely faster, and from all indications stronger. Sheís got the fastest serve of any woman at the U.S. Open. Sheís flashier, more outspoken, and she wears her hair differently. She hits harder than almost anyone, she also makes more unforced errors than anyone. Oh, and letís not forget that in a sport thatís 99 percent white, sheís black. Womenís tennis really hasnít seen anyone like Venus Williams, the 17-year-old bundle of radical extremes and dissimilarities. And she knows it.

When the subject of Tiger Woods was broached this week, Williams said: "He is something different from the mainstream golfer. In tennis, I also am. Iím tall. Iím black. Everythingís different about me. Just face the facts. ... Iím just something totally different than has been around, which I canít help that I am."

Until now, being different and extreme was more a calling card than playing great tennis. That changed pretty dramatically Tuesday night, though, when with a straight-set victory over Sandrine Testud, Williams advanced to the semifinal in just her third Grand Slam tournament. Five matches and she has lost one set. Sheís the first woman to reach the U.S. Open semifinal in her debut in 19 years and the first unseeded semifinalist in 21 years.

Remember, weíre talking about a young woman who had won only one Grand Slam match ó at the French Open ó before last week. Weíre talking about someone who has never reached the semifinals of any tournament. Someone who never played the junior circuit, hasnít played college tennis, and doesnít have a coach. Her father, Richard, who raised her to play in much the same way Earl Woods created his son Tiger, isnít even here for some reason Venus doesnít want to talk about.

What sheís got is huge, imposing talent in the rawest form. At the end of Tuesdayís match, she made like Junior Griffey and did a pull-up on an eight-foot wall to kiss her mother in the stands. Fortunately for someone with so little experience, sheís also a quick study, so quick in fact that her game has evolved about two yearsí worth in 10 days. Itís like sheís teaching herself how to play on the fly ó during a Grand Slam, no less. It sounds insane. But the fact is Williams never played a match with any change of pace until her third-round match against Anke Huber.

"It used to be that I was not quite able to understand that I didnít have to go for winners," she said, adding that she borrowed the new various-speeds approach from her younger sister, Serena. "A lot of people, it takes them years [to understand]. But Iíve been able to understand more, quicker than a lot of people. ... I never took too much pace off the ball. It wasnít part of my game."

So just like that, she practiced hitting slower shots to exact spots loaded with spin, and brought the new strategy to match play. A lot of players need months to use in a match new tactics they practice every day for weeks. Why did she add something so major literally overnight? "It didnít seem extremely dramatic," she said.

Example A: She slowed her 120-mph serve to 90-100 mph Tuesday night because she found out Testud was having more trouble with spin than with pace. "I didnít feel as much pressure to hit great shots, hit them on the lines" Williams reasoned. "Sometimes just deep, well-placed [shots] puts pressure on my opponent to do something better, and that is the game I really hadnít played before."

Before this latest tinkering, Williams was at her best when she was blasting away with a power game. Problem was, she was sacrificing efficiency for power. She even called herself "The Unforced Error Kid," and said: "Usually, Iím making all those errors, going for shots prematurely. I usually just grab [unforced errors] and put them in my bag."

Even against Testud, Williams missed shots that a good club player will make. But Williams would then drop your jaw by going on a spree in which she will rip shots at impossible angles at a speed only Steffi Graf and Monica Seles can consistently match. For example, to finish off Testud, Williams had to make a mad dash into the deep left corner, where, on the dead run, she creamed a backhand cross-court winner to end the match.

And when sheís on, sheís got a confidence thatís, well, Deionish. "Iím kind of like a power player," she said. "All power, big serve, big groundstrokes. If I wanted to, I could come to the net, which I donít do often. ... Iím pretty fast. Most people arenít fast. If you hit a drop shot, Iím going to get it. Just want to tell you guys that. When you play me, donít hit any drop shots."

Itís that kind of brashness that upsets some of her peers. You donít see In Your Face in womenís tennis. Anything more than "I played well today" is considered trash talk. The tennis public loves her; different, in tennis, almost automatically means excitement. But quite a few of the women on the tour have another take on Venus. Lindsay Davenport says that Venus didnít return a smile at Indian Wells. Joannette Kruger said Venus smiled at her mockingly during one of the change-overs this week. "I canít change what people feel," Williams said. "When I want to smile, Iíll smile. If I donít want to, Iím not going to. I think itís a little bit peevish. Smiling, what does that have to do with anything?"

It has to do with the resentment that accompanies being the most hyped new kid on the block, thatís what. Seles faced it. Anna Kournikova, 16, is catching it right now at every stop on the tour. The older players might have found some reason to resent Martina Hingis but she started kicking their butts before they could even figure out who she was.

Williams isnít at that level yet, and probably thatís good. Womenís tennis has seen far too many 17-year-old burnouts. The best thing Richard Williams could have done besides train his daughter, probably, is restrict the number of tournaments she played. Venus Williams has come to New York seemingly unburdened, laughing, joking, charming most people sheís come in contact with. She hasnít won a tournament, yet sheís already a star. Backward as that seems, itís nonetheless amazing that on her own she seems to be developing an all-around game that may soon justify the hype.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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