But not even a father could turn his head away from this. It was rumored that Richard never got on that plane. And he probably didn't even get nauseous. After all, the U.S. Open women's all-Williams final on Saturday night seemed a lot less like a gladiator fight than a carnival. Before the match, two women on stilts with tennis-ball headware watched couples dance to blaring Elvis Presley right outside the main stadium. The Harlem Gospel Choir performed before Diana Ross sang God Bless America. Vanessa Williams, Rick Fox, Brandi and Spike Lee poured into the seats. There were certainly more black people in this tennis stadium than the last time sisters met for a majors final--in 1884, in pasty-white Victorian Wimbledon. It was appropriate that Arthur Ashe Stadium would be the site for the first duel between African Americans for a Grand Slam singles championship.
The audience was in for a treat. The last time the two were supposed to meet, at a semifinal match at Indian Wells, Calif., Venus pulled out at the last minute with a bum knee. And at the 2000 Wimbledon semifinal, their play was sloppy and uninspired, with Venus slumping toward a victory. But this time, Serena, 19--the more powerful but less disciplined player--turned it on at the beginning. Venus, 21 and still the more well-rounded, controlled strategist, broke her sister's serve in the fifth game of the first set. Serena's face, already locked stiff, became even more intense as she struggled, double-faulting the break point on her next service. "She's too competitive," said Venus before the tournament began. "She takes it to an extreme. That could be her weakness." After a week of controlled play, Serena melted into a puddle of 36 unforced errors, laughing in fits of embarrassment, shrieking in frustration and finally tossing her racquet away. By the end of the night, Venus had won her fourth major, 6-2, 6-4, and beat her younger sister for the fifth time in six matches.
But the crowd wasn't really there to see who won. At this point the sisters are still so inseparable--sharing hotel rooms, living together and even practicing together on Saturday morning--that there were not a whole lot of people who could parse favoritism. The crowd, enamored of its own cleverness, was giggling to shouts of "Williams" and "Serenus." It was there to celebrate a new era in women's tennis, the one that Richard, who wore a T shirt on Saturday with his own picture on it, had been predicting for 20 years. Even lunatics are right sometimes.
A mix of P.T. Barnum, Bill Veeck and someone out on a day pass, Richard taught his daughters tennis from instructional videos he had bought. While living in Compton, Calif., with little money, he said he was flipping channels and saw Romanian player Virginia Ruzici win a $35,000 check. He then hid his wife's birth-control pills in order to create a tennis player. He says he even got a friend to steal her purse so she wouldn't have her pills. In a new book, Venus Envy, Richard tells author L. Jon Wertheim that he owns the air rights over India, has a seat on the "Shanghai Stock Exchange," will make some $100 million from a website called homegirls.com, and has been offered $250,000 a night to sing at a Bahamas casino. This is just one afternoon with the guy.
Still, he got it right, not only by creating the two best players in the game but by gutsily holding out for a huge endorsement contract. And there will be more in what promises to be a long era of Williams domination. The end of the summer saw two tournament wins in a row by the Williamses--Serena in Toronto and Venus in New Haven. This year's Open was the death knell not just for Hingis, whose weak serve and clever volleying look a century old, but even for the "veterans"--powerful Capriati and Lindsay Davenport, who just did not appear to be in the same league. The generation of Williams contemporaries--players such as Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters--may never get its day in the sun.
Not only are the Williamses the strongest players in a sport in which power increasingly matters, but their volleys have improved, and they're less afraid of rushing the net. If they begin playing more tournaments next year, as they have vowed to do, Venus, ranked No. 4 at the Open, and Serena, ranked No. 10, will be fighting for the No. 1 ranking for a long time. And if Serena continues to improve her control and gets some confidence about facing her older sister, it will be interesting to see how they segue from partners to rivals--whether they will still room together on the road, whether they'll start a clothing line together, whether they can still practice together and whether they can remain doubles partners.