Born to be No 1, sister permitting

First night Venus Williams

There have been memorable occasions galore this year in the sharply ascending fortunes of Venus Ebone Starr Williams but none more defining than that at the Schluefweg stadium, in Zurich, last Sunday. Not only did Venus thrash the world No 1, Martina Hingis, on her own patch but the American teenager's triumph was a solo one, achieved for the first time without a member of her tight family circle on hand.

There have been memorable occasions galore this year in the sharply ascending fortunes of Venus Ebone Starr Williams but none more defining than that at the Schluefweg stadium, in Zurich, last Sunday. Not only did Venus thrash the world No 1, Martina Hingis, on her own patch but the American teenager's triumph was a solo one, achieved for the first time without a member of her tight family circle on hand.

Anyone doubting the importance of such buttressing should think back to Wimbledon in June when Hingis, opting to enter a big event without the presence of her mother and coach, Melanie, for the first time, lost abjectly in the opening round.

The cynical might maintain that it is her opponents who stand in more urgent need of a relative, or even a doctor, when they face the 19-year-old but family has always meant much to Venus and her "baby" sister, the mighty-muscled 18-year-old Serena. The girls, force-fed on practice as children by their father, Richard, and kept away from junior tennis, have relied mainly as professionals on the courtside presence of their mother, Oracene, particularly at tournaments outside the United States because of Richard Williams's aversion to flying.

But that the mum scenario might also be coming to a close was evident earlier this month when Oracene, nicknamed "Brandy", nodded off while monitoring her daughters' dominance of the Grand Slam Cup in Munich, where Serena beat Venus - for the first time - in the final. It has been evident for much of this season that Venus is eminently capable of minding her own career as she hurtles in pursuit of the No 1 ranking, as was clear from the manner of her dismantling of Hingis in Zurich.

Having lost the first two games, Venus overwhelmed the resident top cat 6-3 6-4 in a match in which all the bullets, winners and errors alike, were fired by Williams. The American amassed seven aces and 17 winners while Hingis, who managed just two winners, was kept in the match by Venus's 31 unforced errors. Even the Swiss burghers were moved to applaud this annihilation of their heroine, as all the world will probably be doing next year when the big push for dominance gets really serious, with the biggest threat to Venus likely to come from Serena.

Even Hingis, not noticeably free with compliments, says the Williams sisters are "the strongest opponents on tour" while Romania's Irina Spirlea, whose provocative shoulder charge on Venus at a changeover during the 1997 US Open was dubbed "The bump heard around the world", admits: "Sometimes I'm in awe. They have something the others don't have."

The consistency of Venus has been astonishing in 1999. She has won six titles, tripling her total of tournament victories. In 16 tournaments Venus has won 56 matches and lost 10. A runner-up four times, she failed to reach at least the quarter-finals only once. "I am smarter this year," Venus explained. "I've always said that I learn from lessons and experiences and I've learned a lot over the past year. I know now how to handle situations differently and the best way to approach things. I'm more mature, too. That's not to say I don't have a way to go but I feel like everything is in place now to achieve my goals."

Part of the maturing process has been to tone down the arrogance which so incensed her fellow pros. Arrogance may now be out but confidence still sloshes around by the bucketful. The girl who said, "I am better than anyone, it is my fate to be number one", now concedes more gently that she always knew getting to the summit would take a lot of work. "I just didn't think it would take this long. But getting the experience takes time and I'm glad now that I have it. I have had to be patient and it took time to figure it out. There is no substitute for improving through your mistakes on court."

The 6ft 2in Venus, who holds the women's service speed record at 127mph, was a finalist in only her third Grand Slam, the 1997 US Open, but has never subsequently come as close. "After losing to Lindsay Davenport in the Australian Open quarter-finals last January [where she fell apart after being penalised because her beads were falling off], I decided I had to do things differently. I was not happy with my results or the way I was playing.

"Basically I'm a baseliner at heart, so it's hard to get something out of your heart. But I had to play my matches the same way I played in practice, otherwise there was no point practising. Either I made changes or just became one of the pack. So I started going to the net more, using my shots better and thinking better. I don't get upset any more, or panicked. I just stay calm and let my racket do the talking."

Cliff Drysdale, the TV commentator and former top pro, insists Venus is such an accomplished baseliner that volleying remains an optional extra and Venus herself concedes: "How many times can you run to the net? That's a lot of energy."

So her considerable energy remains devoted in the main to hammering away from the baseline and getting back the best the opposition can throw at her. "They have to hit the lines constantly if they want to win the points, because I'm going to get there unless I make a mistake."

On-court errors remain profuse, as the Zurich final showed, but they are committed in pursuit of all-out attack which promises to propel her to the top soon. She has already been pipped to one family prize by Serena, who won the US Open, the first Grand Slam by a Williams, but Hingis, the runner-up, was drained after a punishing semi-final win over Venus.

Her defeats of Hingis in the Grand Slam Cup semi-finals and then in Zurich helped make amends but she does not consider it revenge. "I don't believe in revenge. A loss is still a loss. I don't mind putting losing and my name in the same sentence, but winning and Venus sounds better."

The girl who promised "I will walk my path" has not, so far, been deflected, not even by Spirlea's shoulder charge. She is on course, just as Richard Williams always insisted, for the top, little sister permitting. "I would love to be number one," said Venus, "but right now [Hingis] is top and deserves to be there. One day I'll deserve that spot, too."

Whether the family are watching or not.

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