The credentials of Venus Williams are, at this point, truly unquestionable. The American tennis star, alongside sister Serena Williams, can take credit for truly revolutionising the women’s game.
Previously, the women’s tour was charecterised by players who preferred precision over power. Venus, when she first entered the fray, changed the way the game was played.
Her focus on the power side of things was a brand new approach in the women’s game. And it made her very tough to beat for a long time. Indeed, in her prime, the only woman who could beat her comfortably was Serena.
But it was Venus, the elder sister, who emerged on to the professional tennis scene first. And it was her style of play that laid the foundations for the success that both sisters would end up getting.
Given Williams is still active on the women’s pro circuit, it is amazing to think she made her debut 27 years ago. Yet indeed it is true. It was exactly on this day – October 31 – that the world got its first glimpse of Venus Williams.
Let us now look back at what was a truly momentous debut for the world of tennis as a whole.
Williams’ potential in the sport was evident when she was pretty young. A seven-year-old Williams was pegged as a future superstar by a professional tennis player named Tony Chesta.
She would first be coached by her father before enrolling into the tennis academy of Rick Macci. Macci would sometimes disagree with father Richard’s approach but respected the way he raised his children.
By age 12, Williams was already catching everyone’s eye in the junior ranks. But when Williams was 11, Richard stopped sending both his children to junior tournaments.
The motivation for this was two-fold: he wanted his daughters to focus on schoolwork too. The other factor was protecting them from racist abuse; Richard had heard other parents disparage the sisters while they were on court.
Nevertheless, Williams’ junior record at the time was impressive: 63-0. It wasn’t a matter of if she would turn pro; it was a case of when.
Her time to turn pro came quite early; she played her first tournament at the age of 14. That’s right. At a time when most people are going through their teens in school, Williams was getting ready to take on the big girls.
The first tournament she played in was the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland. Her first opponent? Shaun Stafford, a former NCAA champion and ranked 50th in the world at the time.
It was not going to be an easy day for Williams. Yet there was no sign of nerves on her. This passage from former roach Rick Macci’s book ‘Macci Magic’ makes clear how ready she was for the big stage.
“We go to the practice court on the outside and there are 300 people watching her practice. And she’s out there practicing better than she ever had in three years. This was like a lion being in a cage, and now you’re going to let this lion out and she gets to perform,” he wrote.
And if it was already clear she wasn’t fazed, by the end of the match, she made it seem like this was just another day for her.
Not only did she win, she did so quite convincingly; she registered a 6-3, 6-4 win to mark her pro debut with a straight sets victory.
It must be noted that Williams, at this point, hadn’t played a tournament in three years. Yet she was firing off quick serves and dominating returns with extreme nonchalance.
The brevity of Williams’ performance wasn’t lost on Stafford either. “She moves extra well for her height, she’s got a great serve and it’ll get better. It’s exciting for tennis to have her here,” she said after the match.
Venus Williams would end up losing her second round encounter, although it was to then-world number 1 Arantxa Sanchez. Notably, the loss was down more to Williams throwing away a golden lead.
She won the first set 6-3 and led the second set 3-1. Yet from there on out she lost 11 straight games, as Sanchez ran out the winner. The final score? 3-6, 6-3, 6-0.
Given Williams’ junior record, this was actually the first match where she tasted defeat. But this was a stepping stone to eventual superstardom.
Williams would go on to win 7 singles Grand Slam titles and 14 doubles Grand Slam titles. Besides that, she would win three doubles gold medals as well as one gold in singles tennis.
Notably, most of her doubles success came alongside sister Serena, who would go on to supplant her as the most dominant tennis player of all time.
But it was Venus who laid the foundation – and her achievements, in their own right, are commendable and legendary.