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Williams serves life before tennis 13-year-old, sister here for Shriver Classic tomorrow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She is only 13, but the tug-of-war has been pulling at tennis prodigy Venus Williams for at least two years. On one end are the high-powered agents who want to represent her and the high-profile coaches who want to count her among their legions; on the other side are her parents, who want the second youngest of their five daughters to stay, for the time being, a talented teenager playing a game for fun instead of money.

The rope is starting to get frayed, and the nerves -- especially those of her father, Richard -- are beginning to get frazzled. But not enough for him to give up this high-stakes tug-of-war and give in, as other parents have, by turning their children into multi-million dollar conglomerates before they finish, or in some cases even start, high school.

"Kids who turn pro at 14, I really don't believe it's the kids' idea, it's the parents' idea," Richard Williams said recently. "They feel that they want to get that big Mercedes-Benz or keep the big house. If I encouraged Venus to turn pro now, that would be wrong."

Not that Venus and her 12-year-old sister, Serena, will wait until they are 18 to begin fulfilling the promise they first showed back home in Compton, Calif. They might not even wait until they are 16 1/2 -- the age their father begrudgingly would accept -- before they join the Women's Tennis Association tour full time.

But for now, they will hang onto their childhood, if not their innocence, and try to stay on the periphery of the spotlight that has followed them since the stories in Sports Illustrated and People profiled the family a few years ago.

The Williams sisters will come into that spotlight tomorrow night at the Baltimore Area, when they join headliners Jimmy Connors and Jim Courier at the eighth annual First National Bank Tennis Festival. The event, presented by The Baltimore Sun for the benefit of several local charities, begins at 7 p.m.

At an age when many top juniors are crisscrossing the country and traveling overseas to improve their ranking and increase their visibility, an age when the world's No. 1 female player, Steffi Graf, was about to turn pro, Venus Williams is unranked, undaunted and, because of her father's disdain for the junior circuit, unconventional in her approach to future stardom.

Asked if it has been difficult to turn down the offers for endorsements and the opportunity to turn pro, she said, "It's not really hard at all. . . . It's not the most important thing in my life right now. My religion, my family and being a good person are more important."

It has been an interesting road for the Williams sisters, who are living in Bradenton, Fla. while attending school and training at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the breeding ground for several of the world's best players, including Courier. They spent last winter at another tennis facility in Delray Beach, Fla.

While other tennis parents have pushed their children into junior tournaments year round, Richard Williams has long put a protective shield over Venus and Serena. "I wouldn't let her [Venus] play tournaments before she could beat me," said the elder Williams, 51, a self-taught player who owns a security company in Compton. "I thought she'd be at least 12. She beat me when she was nine."

While other tennis parents have allowed their children to work harder on improving their groundstrokes than their grades, Richard Williams has made sure his daughters' priorities were as straight as their A's. "At the rate she [Venus] was traveling, it would have been impossible for her to keep her grades up and her tennis up," said Williams.

While other tennis parents often teach their children to take whatever is offered in order to prepare them for a sport that produces some of the most selfish athletes in the world, Williams has instilled the belief that his daughters help those less fortunate by giving of their time for charitable functions and, eventually, setting up their own foundation. "I'm not sure this is the only way; there are many ways to get to the mountaintop," said Williams.

So instead of remaining in Southern California and playing in the high-level junior circuit there, Williams uprooted his daughters. Part of it was to get away from Compton, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that was home to some of the city's most notorious street gangs, whose members used to serve as unofficial bodyguards for Venus and Serena while they practiced.

"To get out of the ghetto for good, you have to have an education," said Richard Williams. "If you look at the statistics, the parents of these junior players all say that their kids are going to be No. 1 someday. If that's the case, they're going to be 10,000 No. 1s someday."

Physically, Venus Williams might be ready to turn pro. Having already grown to 5-foot-11, she would be one of the tallest players on the WTA Tour. And one of the hardest hitters, a part of the game that Richard Williams taught his daughters early by blasting shots at them from the other side of the net.

"From the people I've talked with, she would probably be [ranked] somewhere between 50 and 100, and that's being conservative," said Patrick McGee, who helps represent a number of top-ranked players, including Graf, for the Washington-based Advantage International and has hit with Venus. "That's based on talent. It's hard to tell because she hasn't played any matches since California."

Said Pam Shriver, who will be host to the Williamses this weekend, "It's certainly very unique. I don't know anyone as talented who has not played in any sanctioned events. That's not to say it won't work out. My feeling is that you have to learn to compete, but sometimes you can also learn the bad parts of that, like getting nervous on big points."

But Venus Williams will unveil her talents shortly, possibly as soon as next year if she were to receive wild-card invitations to a handful of WTA events. Richard Williams doesn't want his daughter to be overwhelmed and discouraged by the competition too quickly, or become bored. In other words, he doesn't want Venus to become another Jennifer Capriati, who seems an emotional and physical wreck before she is out of her teens.

"I'm not going to be out there that early," said Venus Williams. "They're not going to be pushing me out there. It's my career."

Said Richard Williams, "Kids have to be kids."

Even as the tug-of-war ropes keep pulling from both sides.

FACTS AND FIGURES

What: First National Bank Tennis Classic

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena

Who: Jimmy Connors vs. Jim Courier in best of three-set match; also Venus and Serena Williams vs. Cal and Bill Ripken in pro set (six games); Connors and Venus Williams vs. Courier and Pam Shriver in regulation-set mixed doubles.

Why: To benefit several local charities

Tickets: Limited availability of $75 and $35 seats, as well as $20 and $9 seats. Tickets can be purchased at the Arena box office, any TicketMaster outlets or by calling (410) 481-SEAT

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