10/27/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
AS THEY PASSED EACH OTHER IN a hallway during the Lipton Championships last March, 17-year-old Venus Williams glowered at Jennifer Capriati—the following night she went on to beat her. That same month, Lindsay Davenport recalls, Venus cold-shouldered her at a tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. And this summer at the U.S. Open, Williams's coolness toward opponents was, along with her booming serve and powerful all-court game, the talk of the tournament. But Williams, it turns out, just doesn't care what her peers think about her. Asked to name her favorite player, she picks...herself. "Why would I be out there playing professional tennis and doing great," she wonders, "and then say someone else is my favorite?" Pam Shriver, a U.S. Open finalist in 1978 when she was just 16, understands what Williams is going through. "Most champions or potential champions have this special attitude that sets them apart," she says. "Sometimes it comes across as arrogance."
Williams may not be winning friends, but she is, as she is the first to point out, winning. After making it to the Open finals, where she lost to defending champion Martina Hingis of Switzerland, she seems poised to fulfill all her extravagant promise. "Venus is the best thing that has happened to American tennis in a long time," says Harry Marmion, president of the U.S. Tennis Association. Reebok agrees and in 1995 signed her to a $12 million endorsement deal.
At 6'2" and armed with a serve clocked at up to 110 mph, Williams combines awesome speed with dominating size. And to give further alarm to the women's tour, she is adding finesse to raw power. Rick Macci, the Fort Lauderdale tennis instructor who was a coach for Williams from 1991 to '95, predicts that if she competes full time—1997 is her first full year on the tour—she will become the No. 1 player in the world within two years. "All kids are competitive, but her competitiveness is a couple of levels deeper," he says. "She'll run over broken glass to hit a ball."
NBC tennis commentator Bud Collins agrees. "Venus is a godsend," he says. "She's calling attention to the game, and the game needs that now. She's the Tiger Woods of tennis."
The comparison seems apt in some ways, less so in others. Both Williams and Woods have been profoundly influenced by fathers passionately involved with their development as athletes. Far more than Earl Woods, however, Richard Williams, 55, inspires a mixture of praise, puzzlement and dismay. Collins says he had been skeptical about the way Williams has handled his daughter's career. And Williams alleges that CBS commentator Mary Carillo called him a troublemaker because he described one of his daughter's opponents as a "white turkey" after the two bumped each other between games at the Open.
Williams, who shrugs off such criticism, has always gone his own way. When he married Oracene Price in 1972, he knew exactly what he wanted. "I wanted a wife who was at least 5'8" with a great family background and who believed in God," says Williams, who has raised his five children in his and Oracene's Jehovah's Witnesses faith. Most of all, Williams, a former security-company owner, wanted a woman who would give him kids who could excel.
The couple decided their earlier offspring would be professionals—first daughter Yetunde has studied to be a doctor, their second, Isha, a lawyer. By the time Venus came along, Williams, who had taught himself the game, determined she would be a tennis champion. She started at 4, playing on the public courts of Compton, Calif., a town better known for gang violence than tennis. As a 6-year-old, Venus recalls, "I thought I was going to be No. 1."
By the time she was 10, the buzz on Venus had reached Macci, who decided to check her out. "I could see a Michael Jordan-type quality to her even then," he says. Four months later, in September 1991, the family moved to Florida so that Macci could train Venus and her younger sister Serena, now 16 and another potential champion. Two years ago, Williams resumed his role as sole coach, but since Venus's first-round loss at Wimbledon in June, Macci says Williams has approached him about returning.
As a tennis guru, Williams père has novel ideas. For example, when Venus was 5, he took her racket away for about a year. "When someone loves something too much," he explained, "it's more detrimental than a person who doesn't love it at all." He is determined, he says, that his daughter keep tennis in perspective. Williams wouldn't allow Venus to play the juniors circuit and limits her practice time to 2½ hours three times a week—edicts that critics say slowed her development as a player but which he maintains are essential to her growth as a person. "She needs time to get her education," he says, "because all these girls who come along chewing gum and not being able to speak that well, what happens to them when their careers are over?"
In fact, Venus's life away from tennis seems cheerfully unremarkable. She enjoys strumming her reissued Fender 1957 Stratocaster guitar, surfing with Serena off the Florida coast and, yes, shopping. "At one time I would just buy, buy, buy," says Venus. Though she admits to skipping homework from time to time, she graduated with a 3.8 average from a private school near the family home in Palm Beach Gardens. Last spring she took classes at Palm Beach Community College.
Now competing in Europe and hoping for a Top 10 ranking by the end of the year, Venus is also setting other goals. She wants to open a young people's clothing store with her mother and Serena in the Palm Beach area, and one day she hopes to become an architect. No, she hasn't studied architecture yet, but at 17, as confident in this as in all else, that doesn't trouble her. "I have the potential," she says.
FANNIE WEINSTEIN and CINDY DAMPIER in Palm Beach Gardens