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Is Venus an icon on the horizon?

by Gwen Knapp
2001 San Francisco Chronicle

Venus Williams should be a tennis icon in the making. Billie Jean, Chrissie and Martina should already be moving over, making room in the pantheon for the next arrival, a young woman with the name of a goddess and the physique to match.

She has three Grand Slam titles at age 21, a good start on the first requirement. But winning isn't enough. Connecting with the audience is vital, even if the connection is pure friction.

Venus is not beloved, but that's no surprise. Three elements of her career make people intensely uncomfortable: her relationship with her sister, her relationship with her father, and her race. Years from now, these could be the very things that define her legacy, yielding her deferred affection. In his day, Muhammad Ali was a draft-dodging, loudmouth showboat. Now, he is the most revered of all living athletes. He didn't change. The world around him did. He inserted himself under America's skin and stayed there until he was grafted onto the culture.

In tennis, Venus could be the heir to Martina Navratilova, who was despised in her early years. Martina was a heavy-set, plodding challenger to the adorably ponytailed Chris Evert. She came from behind the Iron Curtain, and as soon as she became an American she used her new freedom to tell the world she was a lesbian.

Navratilova pushed her sexuality in people's faces, openly filling the family box with her girlfriends. She made people queasy. Today, many of those same people admire her. She had guts. She was a pioneer. She was tough. They forget, or at least bury, the fact that Navratilova was famously high- strung, prone to little ailments that exploded into crises on the rare occasions she wasn't playing well. Evert, the girly girl, was the stoic one.

If Richard Williams is as shrewd as he seems, he must have observed history glosses over details and rewards athletes who ruffle the status quo. When he began positioning his daughters for tennis greatness, he knew that they wouldn't be the first African-American champions in their sport. He had to mold them into pioneers of another sort.

As he crafted Venus' image, the results weren't always flattering. If he would recede from the picture, she might be more popular. But Venus was only 14 when she made her pro debut at the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland, and her parents had to take charge. This week, Venus returns to the tournament, now held at Stanford, and she is legally an adult. Yet Daddy still hovers, the mastermind of her career.

His persistent message is almost laudable: Venus owes nothing to anybody, and she isn't tennis-obsessed. The second part may or may not be sincere. The first is absolutely true. Venus and her sister Serena do not bow to the usual demands of the tour. They skip tournaments or bail out at the last minute, refuse to chase the computer's No. 1 ranking, and do pretty much as they please. For that, the sisters are perceived as arrogant. Someday, they may be seen as independent.

Pulling away from their father would help. Richard Williams' meddling has brought incessant accusations that Venus and Serena manipulate competition on each other's behalf. The sisters were booed viciously when Venus, without any hint of injury beforehand, pulled out of a match against Serena this winter in Indian Wells (Riverside County).

Richard Williams saw the reaction as racism. He said it was the worst thing to happen to black Americans since Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. It was a ludicrous statement, ignoring race-blind fears about Svengali tennis dads, who come in every color, and the fans' interest in honest competition. The fans at Indian Wells had paid good money to see the Williams sisters play and had come out of respect for their achievements. Then the crowd stood accused of not wanting the Williamses in the sport at all. It didn't add up.

But here's where Venus can truly be a pioneer. She can force people to sift through their beliefs, take a racial Rorschach test: Do I see dreadful manipulation of the game here, or do I see uppity black kids who won't perform for me? Am I booing a perceived fraud as I would with any player, while the person next to me adds extra bile to the jeers because the black performer didn't dance on command?

It's easy to dismiss Richard Williams, until there comes a reminder that his kids are targets, that he's not playing tug-of-war with imaginary bigots. A radio commentator in New York recently said that one of the sisters looked like an animal -- an ancient code for dehumanizing powerful blacks -- and that they'd be more likely to pose nude in National Geographic than Playboy.

The remarks weren't just cruel. They were dishonest. Through what warped prism was he viewing Venus, whose long-limbed body is Barbie after a few weeks with a personal trainer? And Serena? At the risk of seeming indelicate, I have to ask: Since when does a man look at a woman with a chest that is voluptuous and get turned off?

I can only assume the radio moron -- that's what partner Don Imus called him on air -- is jealous of the sisters' power. I can't entirely blame him. Venus is exceptional. Who wouldn't envy that? After winning Wimbledon, she said she didn't like to practice, skipped it as much as possible. Her game, as strong as it is, could still be refined. So why won't she practice? Why does she seem to settle for excellence when she could reach utter dominance?

Her nonchalance makes pure sports fans squirm. A champion should always be striving, never cutting corners. But time may relieve this discomfort, too. Venus is still blooming as a player, still learning. She may change. Or, if she's really an icon, she will change the way we see her.