New millennium, new attitude.” That’s how Venus Williams has explained the past year, in which she reordered the tennis universe. Williams captured Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and two Olympic gold medals (singles and doubles with sister Serena) as part of a 35-match winning streak that finally ended when she lost to Lindsay Davenport in three sets at the Generali Ladies Open in Linz, Austria, in October. “She is right on the threshold of being one of the great players,” says Jay Snyder, tournament director with the U.S. Open. The year of Venus rising has been a long time coming. Although she’s 13 months older, third-ranked Venus has often been overshadowed by her 19-year-old sixth-ranked sister Serena. Yet when Venus made her professional debut in 1994—with her 6’1″ frame, beaded hair and a serve more commonly seen on the men’s tour—anyone who watched her play knew she had the strength and talent to become a champion. The question was: Did she have the hunger? “She seemed to be waiting for things to happen or players to make mistakes, or just not taking control of her game and being aggressive,” says Keven Davis, her attorney and a family friend. At the 1999 U.S. Open, Venus watched grimly as Serena beat Martina Hingis to become the first Williams to win a Grand Slam event. In January she sat out the Australian Open and the following four months with tendinitis in both wrists, all the while dismissing charges of sibling rivalry and rumors of her retirement.
Then, in July, on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, Venus came roaring back. Now she’s being called the Tiger Woods of women’s tennis, the athlete who makes all the other players on the tour think about trying another line of work. Her earnings have exceeded $2 million this year. Her ground strokes have the sports press reaching for superlatives, and her serve has been clocked as high as 127 mph (Pete Sampras’s career best is 136). Most important, though, she’s hungry. “The mental part of the game begins and ends with Venus,” says Davis. “She doesn’t really care what other people are doing to prepare for her. She knows the only thing she can control is her own game and her mental attitude. That is what makes her the champion she is.”