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Rising Star In Women's Tennis: Venus

Self-assured teenager vaults from No. 66 to the semifinals of the US Open on Friday.

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Americans have a passion for sports phenoms - especially those who display exceptional ability at an early age.

Golf sensation Tiger Woods, for example, Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, and NBA 1985 rookie of the year Michael Jordan.

But few sporting venues have produced more precocious stars than the center courts of tennis, particularly women's tennis.

Chris Evert's teenage debut was followed a decade later by 16-year-old Tracy Austin, who became the youngest US Open champion. And Jennifer Capriati turned pro at 14, but her career quickly fizzled.

Today, a new enfant incroyable is on the rise. Venus Williams, debuting in the US Open at 17, has vaulted through her matches to win a spot in Friday's semifinals, playing Romania's Irina Spirlea.

Venus's ascent is no less meteoric than her predecessors, but it is perhaps more tempered.

Although she now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., until she was 10, Venus lived in the rough Los Angeles suburb of Compton. There, she learned her rifle-shot serve from her father on public courts - often to the ring of gunfire in the neighborhood.

Her parents have closely supervised her career - especially her father, who is also her coach - making sure she doesn't play too much tennis too early and burn out the way Ms. Capriati did.

It's a concern that is shared by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), which last year began limiting the number of tournaments teenagers can play. But Venus and her parents have gone a step further. The 6-foot, 2-inch marvel with a 119 m.p.h. serve won't join the tour full time until next year. That's when she graduates from high school, where she has a 3.75 grade-point average.

"I absolutely agree with the WTA rules, and Venus's father has taken the long-range view instead of burning the child out," says Art Taylor, director of Youth Sport Programs at Northeastern University's Center for the Sports in Society in Boston. "We need to look at how we shape the whole person - their emotional stability, interpersonal skills, communication skills, and a history of the game."

Great expectations

Mr. Taylor goes on to say that youngsters often feel pressured and unprepared to cope with the expectations of American fans who come to see their stars, even young ones, perform at consistently high levels.

In the case of Venus, he says, she's already developing a reputation for her lack of respect for others in the game. Tracy Austin says Venus's level of confidence borders on cockiness.


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