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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | LOOKING AHEAD

Winning Streak Puts Spotlight on Williams

September 26, 2000|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

SYDNEY, Australia — With the exception of forehands and backhands and huge serves, the public has never known much more than a snippet or two of what Venus Williams is really like.

Everybody knows the story of her father, Richard, starting Venus and sister Serena on the courts of Compton, where they were little girls with big strokes.

And everybody knows how Richard steered his talented daughters away from the traditional path of tennis stardom, the grind of junior tournaments that prepares for the grind of senior tournaments.

Instead, the Williams sisters became this mysterious pair, a tennis enigma, just kind of out there looking great in practice, who became the subject of much discussion in tennis circles.

Since the Williamses had ignored the traditional path, which brings with it unspoken membership in the circles of tennis elite, they were viewed as outsiders. They hadn't played the Orange Bowl Juniors enough, or a handful of other events that were the rites of admission to the elite tennis world. In essence, they hadn't paid their dues.

So once they started playing on the main tournament level, the reception was icy. Since they were not of the gang, they had to be against it. Many in the public, not knowing what to think, assumed racism. The truth was, the problem was mostly tennis elitism.

But eventually, talent and results win out. And now that Venus, who always had the talent, is producing the results, the public appetite for what makes her tick is insatiable.

Like everything else with the Williams family, response to this has been slow, almost defiant. There are signs, little hints, snippets here and there. But don't expect a half-hour segment on "Real Sports" or a flood of magazine cover stories.

As Venus has made her way through the Olympic women's singles bracket to her Wednesday gold-medal matchup with surprise finalist Elena Dementieva of Russia, she has spent more time with reporters, more time elaborating on answers, more time giving out little snippets. And for the tennis press, which is the direct link to the public, this is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Her current streak has not gotten the credit it deserves. Her 31 consecutive victories, dating to the quarterfinals of the French Open on June 6, is a run so remarkable that only Martina Navratilova's 74 in a row in 1984 and Steffi Graf's incredible 1988 season of a Golden Slam (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Olympics titles) are on the same plateau. Chris Evert had a 55-match streak once, and Navratilova 54, but the speed and power of the current game makes Williams' run noteworthy.

When she plays Dementieva, she will be a huge favorite to win over a Russian on a streak of her own.

Dementieva, at 18 still four months younger than countrywoman Anna Kournikova, has spent much of her career in the shadow of Kournikova's marketing machine.

Dementieva has let her tennis speak for her, and though that is a slower path to the cover of magazines, it is starting to work. Dementieva took Lindsay Davenport to a second-set tiebreaker in her straight-sets loss in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, before making her way to the final here, including a comeback victory in the semifinals Monday against Australian Jelena Dokic and her partisan hometown fans.

Dementieva has played just about every week of the year in 2000, and she will bring a 32-13 record into the final. She played so well coming in that she was seeded 10th, and her ranking, now at No. 17, is heading toward the top 10.

The snippets Williams offered here have been those of a very young player who has started to figure it out, started to be a bit more at ease with herself.

Before this summer, the public had images of huge strokes and occasional huge serves, but also of classic matches that left her unfulfilled--the 1999 U.S. Open semifinal loss to Martina Hingis comes quickly to mind. And then there was the Open final a day later, when little sister Serena won the title, the family's first Grand Slam title, and Venus sat in the stands watching, a hood pulled over her head, a smile never cracking her face.

That was sprinkled against a background of her father's frequently strange utterances, most of them making no sense and many of them seeming intent on stirring the pot of racism.

He once called Venus' opponent, Irina Spirlea of Romania, a "big white turkey" and also seemed to delight in telling anybody who cared to listen that Serena, not Venus, would end up being the best player.

So it hasn't been easy for Venus to deal with an outside world that includes an inquisitive, ever-probing press.

But she is starting to get it, and, correspondingly, so will the public.

After her three-set victory over Monica Seles on Monday in the semifinals, she admitted, "I had some lucky shots."

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