December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

Don’t let the name fool you. She is anything but serene. “She’s cunning and unpredictable,” says her mother, Oracene Williams, “and she waits for just the right moment.” The moment came last September, when 18-year-old Serena Williams took women’s tennis to startling new heights. After vaulting past a host of players, including her better-known and higher-ranked sister Venus, 19, and with a TV audience of nearly 20 million tuned in, the 5’11”, 145-lb. Williams put on a dazzling display of focused technique and extraordinary muscle. In only her third season as a pro she outplayed and outmaneuvered No. 1 seed Martina Hingis to win the U.S. Open, the holy grail of American tennis. The win was all the sweeter because Hingis had defeated Venus the day before. Serena became the first African-American woman to claim the cup since Althea Gibson won it in 1958 and the only African-American besides Arthur Ashe to win a Grand Slam singles title in the past 25 years. The two sisters, says six-time U.S. Open champ Chris Evert, “have brought a higher level of athleticism to the game.” For veteran tennis commentator Bud Collins, they brought a lot more. “Serena and Venus are two of the most phenomenal players in the business,” he says. “And they’ve nowhere near scratched the surface of their development.” That development was slow for both Serena and Venus. They trained early and often on the cracked courts of gang-ridden Compton, Calif., but their outspoken father, Richard, made sure that they and their three siblings studied hard as well. He also refused to let them come up the usual way, through the ranks of junior players, where competitors could learn the particulars of their game. He only unleashed them when they were ready to turn pro, a ploy that still has some establishment types grumbling. Serena, who teamed up with Venus to ace the Open’s doubles title the day after her singles win, raked in $1.7 million this year and carries on like any millionaire teenager. She and Venus are building their own house near their parents’ home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. And Serena likes nothing better than to hop into her yellow BMW convertible and hit the stores. “Last year it was jewelry,” says her mother. “Now it’s clothes. When this ends, I hope she turns to investments.”

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