Rising Star In Women's Tennis: Venus

Self-assured teenager vaults from No. 66 to the semifinals of the US Open on Friday.

Americans have a passion for sports phenoms - especially those who display exceptional ability at an early age.

Golf sensation Tiger Woods, for example, Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, and NBA 1985 rookie of the year Michael Jordan.

But few sporting venues have produced more precocious stars than the center courts of tennis, particularly women's tennis.

Chris Evert's teenage debut was followed a decade later by 16-year-old Tracy Austin, who became the youngest US Open champion. And Jennifer Capriati turned pro at 14, but her career quickly fizzled.

Today, a new enfant incroyable is on the rise. Venus Williams, debuting in the US Open at 17, has vaulted through her matches to win a spot in Friday's semifinals, playing Romania's Irina Spirlea.

Venus's ascent is no less meteoric than her predecessors, but it is perhaps more tempered.

Although she now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., until she was 10, Venus lived in the rough Los Angeles suburb of Compton. There, she learned her rifle-shot serve from her father on public courts - often to the ring of gunfire in the neighborhood.

Her parents have closely supervised her career - especially her father, who is also her coach - making sure she doesn't play too much tennis too early and burn out the way Ms. Capriati did.

It's a concern that is shared by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which last year began limiting the number of tournaments teenagers can play. But Venus and her parents have gone a step further. The 6-foot, 2-inch marvel with a 119 m.p.h. serve won't join the tour full time until next year. That's when she graduates from high school, where she has a 3.75 grade-point average.

"I absolutely agree with the WTA rules, and Venus's father has taken the long-range view instead of burning the child out," says Art Taylor, director of Youth Sport Programs at Northeastern University's Center for the Sports in Society in Boston. "We need to look at how we shape the whole person - their emotional stability, interpersonal skills, communication skills, and a history of the game."

Great expectations

Mr. Taylor goes on to say that youngsters often feel pressured and unprepared to cope with the expectations of American fans who come to see their stars, even young ones, perform at consistently high levels.

In the case of Venus, he says, she's already developing a reputation for her lack of respect for others in the game. Tracy Austin says Venus's level of confidence borders on cockiness.

"What she needs to work on are the graces of the game," Taylor says. "Venus's only weakness is where she fits into the game and where others fit into it. Most teenagers - no matter their skill level - would seem really out of place [socially]. It's a developmental thing."

Despite her level of confidence (she says she can beat anyone, even several of the men), Venus seems to be learning. After bouncing across the court, leaping the wall to give her mother a kiss, and distributing to fans some of the blue beads that had fallen out of her hair, Venus was very complimentary of her opponent in Wednesday's quarterfinal match - France's Sandrine Testud.

She called Sandrine a "powerful" player. She seemed more demure about her own win, saying one of her goals was to make it to the quarterfinals, which she did. But, with a smile that couldn't be erased, she said she didn't meet one of her other goals.

"My goal coming in was not to lose one bead during a match," said Venus, who took nine hours to plait about 1,800 red, white, and blue beads in her braids for the Open. She looks forward to the match with No. 11 Irina Spirlea, who Venus says, is playing at the "top of her game."

Venus intends to do a little sightseeing - maybe see the Statue of Liberty - with her mother and sister, Selena, who are attending the match. Her father - much maligned for not attending this match or Wimbledon, where Venus was knocked out in the first round, and the French Open, where she was knocked out in the second - still has not made an appearance at Flushing Meadow.

Father knows best

But Venus sloughs off the criticism, saying her father has brought her to where she is, and she knows what she has to do to win. She says she's happy to have her mom with her, who provides all the guidance and grounding she needs.

Venus's parents, much like the No. 1 seeded 16-year-old Martina Hingis's mother, are seeing that Venus has a well-rounded upbringing. She attends a private high school and is also taking business classes at a community college there. Venus, the second to the youngest of five daughters, says she intends to open her own store and sell her own line of clothes and sporting equipment.

Her tennis goal, she says, is to make the top 20 this year. But she says she has all it takes to be No. 1 - including time.

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