Changing Courts

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"I'm so nervous from doing things wrong," says Serena Williams, opening her scissors in the air, sighing and then closing them. "I have no confidence. I never feel like this." Her sister Venus, who sits next to her in their Fundamentals of Pattern Making class, is able to offer no support, panicked herself about a tiny tear she has made, despite, or perhaps because of, her extreme caution in removing staples from her brown-paper skirt pattern. "I want to quit right now," Venus says, stamping her foot. Just then instructor Mariella Adrian, standing at the front of the small class, yells, "If you're sloppy in the beginning, it will be sloppy in the end, and all the blame will be with you." Venus freezes. Serena puts down the scissors. For tennis players whose own father rooted against them at matches to toughen them for competition, this is a surprisingly ineffective teaching method.

For the second year, Venus and Serena Williams are lugging their toolboxes, with their names carefully written in black marker on their rulers, to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale — a mall-front junior college that overlooks Time Warped: A '70s and '80s Nightclub. Their insistence on expanding their interests beyond tennis has annoyed the likes of Martina Navratilova, who says this endeavor shows the sisters' arrogance and lack of commitment to tennis.

Getting the Williams sisters more committed, though, might result in everyone else's playing for third place. Two months ago Venus, 20, skipped a week of classes to play the Generali Ladies Open in Austria, where her 35-match winning streak — including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Olympics — was snapped in the finals by Lindsay Davenport. Serena, 19, who won the Princess Cup in Japan in early October, has jumped to No. 6 in the WTA rankings. Venus is ranked third, only because she missed the first five months of the year because of an injury. Since June, she's clearly been the best in the world. It's conceivable that despite Davenport and that pesky No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis, Venus, with her superior court coverage, and Serena, with her greater power, could spend the next few years swapping the two top spots the way they would sweaters.

The pair are taking classes because Venus opened a piece of junk mail advertising a fashion school in Tampa, Florida, a few years ago. Tampa was too far away, so she signed up herself and her unknowing sister for the program in Fort Lauderdale. Within three years, the sisters plan on designing their own lines, with Venus making prêt-à-porter and Serena doing evening wear — and neither doing sportswear. "Right now we're sort of famous, and while you have a name, you might want to use it," says Venus. "We're going to school now, and we're seen out there looking fashionable."

The Williams sisters have indeed become well known in the fashion world. Last year designer Jeremy Scott made dresses inspired by them, and they posed in Vogue wearing Carolina Herrera gowns. They are, by far, the best-dressed women in tennis, not to mention their classroom.

Serena, who has won over $1 million this year, is certainly the only student at the school who can give an opinion about designers that includes the sentence "I really like Versace because of the way the clothes fit on me." For Friday's class, Venus, 187 cm tall, wore snakeskin pants, a faux-velvet, high-necked, sleeveless shirt and a tan leather half jacket. Serena, at 178 cm, modeled a midriff-baring shirt under a denim jacket and low-riding jeans folded down over her stomach to reveal the brand-new belly-button ring that her father just freaked out about when he read this sentence.

But despite their interest and their hard work, they are finding fashion more challenging than they expected. "I thought if I showed up and was fashionable, they'd pass me," Venus admitted. Still, she got a 3.6 last year (out of 4.0); Serena had a 3.4, which she has vowed to pull up to a 3.7.

In her effort to catch up after travelling, Venus is grabbing classmates' tools to finish her skirt pattern. Her strappy sandals are making lots of noise as she runs around the class looking for a truing wheel — to give her pattern the appropriate curve. "These shoes have no support," she says. "But they're fashionable."

"I was in them once, and I had a backache," says Serena.

"You shouldn't have been in them," scolds Venus.

Finally caught up, Venus stands next to her sister, both of them with pins in their mouths, tape measures around their necks and chalk in their hands as they drape muslin over their mannequins. Adrian stops by and rearranges the pins Venus has misattached to the bustline. Venus looks surprisingly crestfallen, given that she must have taken a lot of rejection going door to door with her four sisters as a Jehovah's Witness.

Then she clicks a series of sharp and accurate staples to a skirt pattern, pumps her fist and yells, "Huh! Yeah!" Mission accomplished, Venus can turn to goofing on her classmates. Jerry Hernandez, 19, is running around the classroom looking for his grade sheet, which Venus pulls from her purse, giggling.

Come break time, Serena is persuaded by a classmate to go out to the vending-machine room, where tragedy strikes. "No! This is so not fair!" yells Serena as her Tostitos refuse to fall from slot A6. She is making quite a scene. "This is ridiculous. I've got to have those A6s. They're delicious." She settles, unhappily, on Fig Newtons, trail mix and a vastly inferior brand of chips.

On her way back to class, still vowing to get her dollar back, Serena runs into a classmate. "I hate to do this to you, but my kids have a poster of you in their room, and I was wondering if I could bring them in to meet you guys," the classmate says. "It would rock their world." Serena agrees to meet them the next week.

Toward the end of the four-hour class, the instructor is reviewing for next week's midterm, and Serena, without looking at her meticulous notes, is correctly giving most of the answers. When the teacher announces that the test will be multiple choice, Venus and Serena, showing they are worthy and true students, look at each other, pump their fists and yell, "Yes!"