Williams a match off court Open finalist puts lessons to good use

November 13, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Richard Williams is sitting in the stands at Villanova University's Pavilion about to watch his daughter Venus compete in what will turn out to be her last match of the season.

Richard Williams is a proud parent. He has seen his daughter step into the limelight of women's tennis this fall. At a time when tennis was in need of a Tiger Woods-type boost, it was Venus, her hair braided with red, white and blue beads, who clattered and danced into the final of the U.S. Open and gave the sport an injection of vitality.

But when Williams is asked about his precocious daughter, it is not the tennis accomplishments that make his smile broaden.

"It's very exciting for all of us," he says. "What she did has %J happened to very few people in the world. But it's what she has accomplished as a student that makes us most proud."

Venus Williams, 17, has graduated from high school and begun taking classes at Palm Beach (Fla.) Community College. She and her younger sister, Serena, who also made history this year by being the lowest-ranked player ever to beat two top 10 players in the same tournament, have also taken computer lessons and can surf the Net with the best of them.

And when Venus Williams reviews this season, one limited to 13 events, including the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, she talks about things she has learned on the tennis court and off.

"I don't feel that good about the year," she said. "I'd play well one tournament, bad the next. I don't want to be that kind of player. So, I'll reset my goals for next year. A, I'll work on playing well every week. B, I'll tell myself I'm not going to be this inconsistent anymore."

She says she has learned she has to change her game, "that I can't always just play the way I might want to" and adds that she's trying to take better advantage of her 6-foot-2 size and come to the net more and volley better.

"They're not very exciting things, not things people want to hear or read about, but they are things I have to work on," she says, "and things I want to work on."

It was at the U.S. Open that Williams made history by making it to the final in her first appearance and stirred up a storm among players who were put off by her self-confidence and aloof attitude. It stirred another fiery young woman, Irina Spirlea, into a bump on a changeover in their semifinal match and into using an obscenity when talking about Williams after the match.

That incident taught her something about competition.

"I can't believe how that incident got so blown up," she says, after losing Tuesday night's rematch with Spirlea, 6-3, 6-2, at the Advanta Championships. "And I thought it was pretty sad that I had to answer questions [about racism] like that, but it's just a part of life. You deal with good things and bad things. You can't expect everything to be good.

But a lot of it was good.

She learned French, because her father insisted that she be able to speak a rudimentary version of that language before he would allow her to go to France. She saw sights, Big Ben in London, St. Basil's church in Moscow.

And she learned that if she promised her father something, she would have to deliver.

In New York, Williams was evasive when asked why her father wasn't there and why she had arrived just days before the tournament began. She said only that it involved a bet.

Her father explains it this way.

"Venus kept telling me if she could play the French and Wimbledon, her grades wouldn't fall," Richard Williams says. "I told her there was no way she could go to the French and Wimbledon, be gone all that time and have her grades not fall. But she promised they wouldn't. They did, and I told her she couldn't go to the Open if she didn't make up all the work. Then I worked a deal with her teacher to hide out so she couldn't make it up."

But the teacher felt sorry for her, came out of hiding and Williams was able to make up the work four days before the Open.

Richard Williams says there were lessons that his daughter needed to learn. Promises must be kept, and work must get done.

"Now, she does her homework," he says. "Education is so important. In the long run, it should be more important than anything she learns on the tennis court."

Next year will be Venus Williams' first full year on the women's tour. And it should also be the first big year for fulfilling her potential in endorsements.

The Williamses' attorney, Keven J. Davis, says he is within 60 days of wrapping up three or four deals for rackets, sunglasses, a financial institution and watches/electronics.

"Mr. Williams has been very, very focused on wanting his daughters, Venus and Serena, to have the opportunity to be smart, educated young women," said Davis. "They've turned down deals that weren't right, and they continue to take their time, making sure Venus will not be inundated right away."

Richard Williams says he has taken a lot of criticism for limiting his daughter's play, but as he watches her walk off the court for the last time this season, he is smiling:

"I think you can look at her now, see all that she has accomplished, see all the things she can do and say it has paid off."

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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