The Power Game

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Player haters. Maybe that's the deal. Jealous people are always player-hating the Williams sisters, calling them arrogant or aloof or unfocused on tennis. Maybe it's sexism, the resentment of a dominant pro athlete's braggadocio, seen as unseemly in a woman. Maybe it's simple racism. Or maybe it's just that the Williams sisters, as good as they are, are kind of arrogant and aloof and unfocused on tennis. "People criticize me as being arrogant," Venus said last Monday during a tournament in New Haven, Conn., her toy Yorkshire popping out of her Kate Spade bag. "Maybe because I'm a little smarter than the others. Maybe it's because when they ask me a silly question, I refuse to answer it and make myself look foolish." There is a lot of silence at Williams sisters' press conferences.

The Williams sisters make up their own rules - that's both the appeal and the repellent. They pulled out of junior tennis when Venus was 11, reappearing out of nowhere in 1994 and 1995, respectively. They rarely compliment or congratulate an opponent, and they turned down many endorsements until the stakes got higher - they raked in $17.5 million last year between them - and often ignore the media. When Venus won the U.S. Open last September and President Clinton made his congratulatory phone call, she asked for a tax cut, complained that his motorcade had held up New York City traffic for her and scolded him for leaving before her match. Imagine what the sisters will do to Bush.

This is normal behavior on the women's tennis tour, where all the top players have a potent combination of talent, glamour and tennis-kid brattiness. Instead of keeping their rifts in the background, like most egomaniacal athletes, these women air their gripes and grievances on center court. It makes for great TV, which is one reason why, when the women's tour arrives in New York City this week for the U.S. Open, it will be the women's final, not the men's, that CBS airs in prime time.

In case the play isn't enough to captivate viewers - although with their mix of power and finesse, it should be - there's plenty of drama to go around. Besides the marked Williams sisters, there's No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis, who has morphed from the adorable Swiss miss into the tour's trash-talking queen; Jennifer Capriati, the seemingly washed-up teen prodigy turned fitness monster and this year's dominant player; Lindsay Davenport, a California redwood, who squeezed her high school prom in around the tour and now fires shots at the other players from the safety of her elder-stateswomanship; Monica Seles, the once champion, who was knifed in the back by a lunatic eight years ago and is now playing with a desperate intensity. These women could make ice hockey popular.

The Williams sisters draw most of the unfriendly fire because they are the kids in class who never let anyone see them study but show everyone their straight A's. They are huge women (Venus, 21, at 6 ft. 1 in.; Serena, 19, an even more muscled 5 ft. 10 in.) who learned the game at home in inner-city Compton, Calif., under an amateur coach, their father - not at the boot camp of coach Nick Bolletieri, where most promising kids are sent. They dominate through their athleticism. Venus, who can serve a ball at 127 m.p.h., is actually less powerful than her sister. But she's faster, comes to the net more and chokes the court off from opponents, forcing them into more difficult shots. Serena's game is still raw; she tends to blast away from the baseline. When she's on, she's unbeatable. When she's not, the ball boys wear cups.

Between them they've won 28 tournaments and four majors, even though they choose to enter significantly fewer tournaments than most other players. They are up front about the fact that tennis is merely one aspect of their lives. They take the autumn off, for example, to attend a fashion design school located next to a strip mall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Because the ranking system of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) adds up the best 17 events over the previous 52 weeks, neither sister has a realistic shot at a No. 1 ranking. Still, Venus, who won Wimbledon in July, is ranked fourth, while Serena, who has played even less, is 10th. They are part-time players with a full-time presence.

Other players have chided them for not playing more, the suggestion being that they're not doing their fair share for the sport and that the grind might get to them. The players should be careful what they wish for. Both sisters say next year they will play a full season. "I want to play tournaments and get my ranking better," says Serena, sitting with her pit bull Bambi in the home she shares with Venus in West Palm Beach, Fla. "I want to be the No. 1 player. So I decided not to go to school this fall." Then she immediately starts to hedge. "Maybe I'll be able to take one or two classes instead of six. It's going to take me forever to finish." And two days later, Venus, still vowing to sit out school next year, says the day she gets her diploma "is going to be the most exciting day of my life." She is going to be disappointed by anyone the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale scares up for a graduation speaker.

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