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What makes women’s tennis the hottest game in town? Strength, speed, and~writes James Kaplan~the Williams sisters.Photographed by Bruce Weber

Thirty-five years ago, I watched my first women’s tennis tournament at the old Eastern Grass Court Championships in South Orange, New Jersey, where the rackets were wood, the tennis clothes white, and the prize money nonexistent. Winners took home trophies. And the women’s game,circa 1965, was a slower, paler version of the men’s competition.

Fast-forward to 2001, when this month’s Ericsson Open, in Miami, will award prizes of up to $375,000 in the women’s side of the tournment. These days, while the men’s game struggles to recapture the fervor of the seventies and eighties---when players like Bjorn Borg, John McEnore, and Boris Becker generated rock-star-like idolatry, not to mention ticket sales and TV ratings— women’s tennis is a game whose time has come. Big-time. Total prize money for the Sanex WTA Tour (Sanex, body-care-products division of Sara Lee, is the tours’ chief sponsor) will approach $50 million this year. Last year, a record 4,100,000-plus fans attended tour events worldwide. Women’s tennis has become a quarter-billion-dollar-a-year business, not even including the Grand Slams(Wimbledon and the Australian, French, and US Opens). The glamour and excitement are unprecedented—carrying the sport beyond its die-hard fans to a general public that doesn’t know the difference between a drop shot and a drainpipe.

How did women’s tennis transform itself from mere sport to big-ticket entertainment? A handful of marquee players, starting with Billie Jean King and ranging from Chris Evert to Martina Navratilova to Steffi Graf, ignited the game’s rocket-like rise from the seventies into the nineties, setting the stage for five female pros to appear on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list last year.

But the game’s explosion into the larger world was really triggered by two players unlike any who had come before. They are, of course, the glorious Williams sisters: first, Venus and, more recently, Serena. Charismatic, stylish, and supremely athletic, this sister act has set the previously homogeneous world of women’s tennis on its ear.

At the 1997 US Open, Venus became the first woman to reach the finals in a debut there since Pam Shriver in 1978. The next year she recorded the fastest serve ever in tour history with a 127-mile-per-hour ace in Zurich. She had a 35-match winning streak last year, which included two Grand Slams.

Serena, just fifteen months younger, began garnering awards as half of the Williams sisters doubles team, but soon, with a serve that has been known to reach 119 miles per hour, she came into her own. In the beginning of the 1999 season, she was number 20 in the world. But by the end of the year she’d captured five WTA singles titles, including the US Open, thus cruising up to number four and pocketing a cool $2 million-plus in prize money. As the 2001 season gets started, she is ranked sixth, while big sister Venus is poised, at world number three, for an assault on the summit.

The typical rules don’t seem to apply to the Williamses. Venus and Serena played nine and eleven tournaments, respectively, in 2000, while, for instance, Martina Hingis played 20 events, and Anna Kournikova, 26. In the throes of some sort of identity crisis, an injured Venus took the first four months of the year off and focused on fashion design—a jaw-dropping move in an era when most tour players are reluctant to step off the carousel for more than a week or two for fear of losing rank. But Venus came roaring back from her hiatus to win Wimbledon and US Open titles, not to mention two Olympic gold medals. Experts debate the sisters’ significance to the business of tennis, but the fact is, when the Williamses sat out the Chase Championships last fall, attendance slid by nearly 2,000. Venus had a rough start at the Australian Open(no doubt due, at least in part, to a hectic double life as student and pro tennis player) but, as of press time, both sisters had advanced to the quarter finals of the season’s first Grand Slam.

Quite simply, the Williamses—who grew up playing tennis on the tough asphalt courts of inner-city Compton, California, before they were five years old—are two of the most astonishing and magnetic athletes ever to pick up a tennis racket. Between them, they own seven WTA doubles titles and 23 single titles.

But it’s more than their physical fitness that makes them stars;it’s their physical presence. I first exprienced this last December, when Reebok announced its $40 million endorsement deal with Venus. I’m six foot two, but Venus, who is six-one and was in only slightly raised shoes, seemed to loom over me when we met after the press conference. At the same time, in black tights and a midriff-baring sleeveless shirt, she looked beautiful. When she entered a room packed with flashing and clicking cameras, the atmosphere charged up like air before a summer thunderstorm. Even though she can blush like a shy schoolgirl, her demeanor is nothing short of queenly. She smiled brilliantly throughout the proceedings, until someone asked, only half joking, if President-elect Bush had been in touch with her. (After she won the 2000 US Open, Bill Clinton called her on the phone—and Venus promptly asked him to lower her taxes.) “I guess my people and his people will have lunch,” she replied with a straight face.

Both Venus and Serena realize what defines style, and it shows. Both have been known to shift out of autopilot and perk up when the subject turns from tennis to Prada and Gucci. And each has set her sights on a future career in fashion. “If I wasn’t playing tennis I’d probably be almost finished with school and close to being a designer by now,” Serena says. How many athletes are at the top of their sport and exude elegance? The Williamses’ athletic and aesthetic appeal makes them ideal spokespeople for any product or cause under the sun—an opportunity previously reserved for male sports stars.

Serena signed a five-year contract with Puma in 1998, which could reportedly earn her $20 million, and Venus’s five-year endorsement deal with Reebok is the richest ever for a female athlete. This was a revolutionary contract, putting her in the same financial league as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. In addition, there are the deals that take the sisters beyond tennis and into the world of fashion—like the contract the two signed last year with Avon, and Venus’ recent contract with Wilsons Leather, under which she will endorse and design garments. As their agent Stephanie Tolleson of the International Management Group observed, “I believe they’ve transcended the sport.”

Shortly after the press conference, I asked Venus whether she thought she was powerful. “I think so,” she said. “I got a lot of punch behind my shots.” But it was little sister Serena who later acknowledged that these days, power necessitates a broader definition, even in sport. “Power is an attitude, a presence, a mind-set,” she said. “It is how you treat other people, what’s important to you. I have a strong personality and a strong character. I have a strong family and a strong faith. That’s what make me powerful.” She laughed. “Power is in the head. But a 130-mile-per-hour serve doesn’t hurt either.