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Along with Anna Kournikova, 20, who may be the most photographed woman in the world, the Williams sisters are celebrities as much as they are tennis players. "We're two sisters. That's new and exciting," says Serena, sounding very much like a younger sister. And they act like sisters. Really close sisters. Besides living together, they usually share hotel rooms at tournaments. They sit next to each other in their classes. They want to start a clothing business together. When Venus loses her wallet, which is surprisingly often, Serena often finds it. Venus even sticks her nose in Serena's mouth to find out what she ate. They make the Jolie siblings look estranged.
So it makes good drama when they face each other, which in the U.S. Open, owing to the draw, could happen only in the finals. Fifteenth-ranked Magdalena Maleeva, 26, who lost to one of her two older sisters at four separate majors, says, "To play tennis you need the killer instinct. It's hard to have the killer instinct with your sister."
Apparently it's not so hard for Serena. "She's too competitive. That could be her weakness. She takes it to an extreme," says Venus. Isha Williams, a law student at Georgetown University and one of the five Williams sisters, nods her head. "Wow, Serena is really competitive. We used to think it was funny because she was too emotional. But I guess it's not funny anymore." Even Serena admits it's a problem off the court. "It's not fun because no one wants to golf with me," she says.
Like the equally driven Jackson and Wayans families, the Williams sisters are Jehovah's Witnesses. Despite their arrogance about tennis, once they are off the court and off the subject, they are polite, well rounded and better educated than most of their competitors. They never curse. Serena, in fact, buys her rap albums at Wal-Mart because the bad words have been excised. For women known for their brashness, they are sensitive to coarseness. They lecture the kids in their fashion class about the negative influence of foul-mouthed cable-TV shows like South Park.
Besides their outer toughness and the sister stuff, their appeal lies in the fact that they're the newly admitted blacks in the country club - much like Tiger Woods in golf - and they're handily beating the white folks. Their presence has expanded the tennis fan base. Blacks are now more than twice as likely to identify thhemselves as avid tennis fans as whites.
Adding some color to the mix hasn't been smooth. Just ask the Williams sisters' father Richard. Actually, don't bother asking. Just stand within shouting distance of him, or listen to the outgoing message on his cell phone, on which he is always angry about something, usually race. Serena says their only friends on the tour are Chanda Rubin and Alexandra Stevenson, the only other black women near the top 100. The other players, who admittedly don't like one another's white butts either, find the Williamses off-putting. And many think they play the race card when it suits them. "Being black only helps them," says the Czechoslovakia-born Hingis. "Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, 'It's racism.' They can always come back and say, 'Because we are this color, things happen.'"
Martina Navratilova, a lesbian who has fought her own discrimination battles, agrees. "I think they've been treated with kid gloves," she says, citing a display by Richard Williams after Venus beat Davenport at last year's U.S. Open final. "If Mr. Williams had been white and done that victory dance in front of Lindsay Davenport, he would have been reprimanded much more. People have been afraid to criticize them because they don't want to be called racist."
Not Navratilova. "They have made excuses and not given credit to their opponents. They're afraid to show any kind of humility. Humble doesn't mean you're weak." Given that Navratilova, about to turn 45, is sitting outside a private court after running drills as self-flagellation for losing a doubles match at the French Open, it's understandable she's disappointed in their refusal to devote themselves fully to the game. "You can be a clothing designer later, but you have only so many years to be a tennis player at the top level."
The World Wrestling Federation has to script this kind of bad-mouthing. On the women's tour, it's as common as a backhand down the line. Part of the fun of women's tennis, besides the fact that players are better than ever before, is the fact that it's a soap opera in which everyone gets to play Alexis Carrington.
"These players for the most part don't get along. That's what makes it so interesting," says third-ranked Davenport, 25, the 1998 Open winner. And she's right. Try to get the women to pose for a magazine cover en masse and you wonder how vh1 pulls off that diva show every year. "Serena is a lot more friendly than Venus, but Martina [Hingis] is not talking to either of them," said Davenport in May, before Hingis and the Williamses reached a detente. "Anna and Martina were both going for the same market, and that didn't work. They got in a huge fight in Chile. They were throwing flowers at each other and screaming at each other. They were best friends and doubles partners," Davenport said as she sat with her boyfriend and her Rottweiler on the deck of her huge Laguna Beach, Calif., house overlooking the Pacific.
What seems like catfighting, though, is just a sexist take on what happens in big-time sports - though you can be forgiven for thinking