There probably has never been a more anticipated pro tennis debut than when Venus Williams played at the 1994 Bank of the West Classic.
The tournament was then an indoor event played in the fall and Williams, then 14-years-old, was given a wild card into the event to test her skills against the pros after not playing junior tennis at all, outside of a handful of 10-and-under local tournaments in Southern California.
Rick Macci was the coach of Venus Williams – and her younger, then overlooked little sister Serena – at the time and takes readers behind the scenes at this historic event in tennis in his new book “Macci Magic: Extracting Greatness From Yourself And Others.”
Called the “coach of phenoms,” Macci has coached five players who have gone on to rank No. 1 in the world (Venus and Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova.) His book “Macci Magic” – available here: http://www.amazon.com/Macci-Magic-Extracting-Greatness-Yourself/dp/1937559254/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1406548188&sr=8-1 Macci shares his secrets to success both on and off the tennis court, mixed in with stories of his most famous pupils and a list of his famous motivational “Macci-isms.” The excerpt discussing the 1994 Bank of the West Classic from Macci’s revealing chapter on Venus and Serena Williams and their father Richard is found here:
In 1994, the WTA made an age eligibility rule change where you could not turn pro at age 14. They called it the “Capriati Rule.” They didn’t want kids to get burned out and all this nonsense. I told Richard, “Listen, now you have to make a decision, your first real decision in this whole situation. Either Venus has to turn pro or you’re going to let the WTA dictate to you how many tournaments she can play at 15, 16, 17 years old. Richard didn’t like to be told what to do by anybody. He said, “OK, we’ve got to work on getting a wild card. Let’s play.”
And if they hadn’t made that rule change Venus wouldn’t have turned pro at 14 and made her debut. The only reason she did that was to get under the clock so she would be grandfathered in this rule change. So it was very ironic. That wouldn’t have happened. She wouldn’t have made her debut in 1994. History would play out a little differently. Timing in life is everything and determines everything.
Now the debut was going to happen. This was June and we got her a wild card into the Bank of the West Classic played in November of 1994 in Oakland, California, and run by IMG. I told Richard, “Now we’ve got to amp it up. We’ve got to practice a little more, turn up the volume, a little more intense.” He said, “I agree. I agree.”
The next day after this decision, Venus doesn’t show up for practice. A day later he calls me and says, “We’re at Disney World.” The guy went to Disney World for a week. I want to turn the volume up, he turns it down. This is Richard!
Then they come back and we start practicing a little harder, a little more focus. Think of it – she hadn’t played a real tournament in three-and-a-half years. She’s playing boys and is getting bageled and getting crushed every day. She hasn’t beaten anybody in three-and-a-half years. She has not won a match in three-and-a-half years in practice. She’s played boys 16, 17 and 18 years old.
I knew when she made her debut that people would be very, very impressed in how she tried to play. But I didn’t know if she was going to spray every ball out or if she would be so nervous she couldn’t play. I didn’t know how she would respond to the fans in the stands. But I knew all the players and media would see this girl for her coming out party and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that. Wow, she’s tall and she has a great serve.” And she had a lot of open stance, she played very different, but does that mean she’s going to win? I had no idea. But was she going to be great? I said, “Yes, no doubt!”
We take her to Oakland. The year before, I believe there were 24 media credentials given out for the tournament, and this year there were 252. Venus was coming. It was almost like Elvis arriving in the building. There had never been anything like it. We go to the practice court on the outside and there are 300 people watching her practice. And she’s out there practicing better than she ever had in three years. Venus was so ready to tee it up! I was so proud of her. She was stoked and dialed in! Venus Williams was ready to compete!
This was like a lion being in a cage, and now you’re going to let this lion out and she gets to perform. I couldn’t believe how she was hitting the ball with the hitting partner. She was so pumped up and I was really pleased she turned up the volume. The next day we were going to play a practice set and she’d never beaten the hitting partner named Gerard. I actually told Gerard, “Make it close, let her win in the tiebreak.” Usually, he beats her like a drum 6-0, 6-1. They played and Venus won 7-6 and she had a smile on her face ear to ear. She was always smiling but she was so happy and said, “Rick, I’m playing so unbelievable. For the first time ever I beat Gerard.” So mentally she didn’t realize that he didn’t go 100 percent and you couldn’t tell it. I don’t know if Richard or Oracene could tell it but mentally I was getting her ready. I wanted that confidence to be at an all-time high. Venus was ready to go into orbit!
The draw put her against Shaun Stafford, who was a former NCAA singles champion who had been ranked as high as the 20s but was now ranked No. 57 in the world. She had a good serve, good power, but was a little inconsistent and had a shoulder injury. It was a match that Venus was definitely going to get games. What was unfortunate, I just felt, everybody at this tournament wanted her to lose. There was so much hype that this was the best thing since sliced bread and Richard could rub people the wrong way. And people love to see people fail in our society. Too much hate! Not cool.
She went out to play the match and Richard had her racquet painted with no logo. It was almost like “I’m available for rent.” He bought clothes for her from JC Penney that had no logos. He might have put a “for rent” tag on there too! It was the funniest thing. All I cared about was Venus enjoying the competition and show the world her wiring and greatness. It was an incredible thing. I can picture point by point even today this girl going out there running like Bambi and using an open stance on every shot and having no fear….just no fear. All in 100 percent! Moreover, the match was played on Halloween night and the scariest thing out there was her serve.
It was 115 miles per hour at age 14. (At age 10 it was 74.) She played so smart, so aggressive, winning 6-3, 6-4. When she won, she was jumping up and down at the net and there was a smile ear to ear. I had never seen her that happy! And everybody was in shock that this girl can walk off the street after not playing a competitive tournament — junior, college, no matter, nothing — right into the pros and beat the No. 57 in the world. It had never been done. It will never be done again. Now the media was going out of control because they’re already anointing her that she’s going to be greatest — except the players. Martina Navratilova said, “Ah, she’s tall. She’s got a good serve. Wait until she feels the pressure.” I’m thinking sour grapes. But I’m also thinking Venus loves pressure. It’s her best friend. Venus is all about the battle. Bring it on. Pressure is Compton. This is fun! Pressure is an honor to a competitor.
Venus did the press conference, and it was all about her being happy and being 14 and loving to play and she really enjoyed it. But next on the menu was Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who was No. 1 in the world. Steffi Graf had a knee injury so Arantxa had moved up to the top ranking. What was interesting was when Venus played the match against Stafford she stood up the whole match on the changeovers and was bouncing like a boxer in the corner of a ring, because at the academy we never allowed the kids to sit down during practice. And there’s a chair there on the side, as there is at every tournament, and Venus didn’t even know what it was for because she hadn’t played any matches! She just stood up and kept bouncing. Is that crazy or what? Crazyeee!
I’ll never forget Bud Collins on ESPN said, “Her coach Rick Macci said, ‘There’s a chair there, you’re supposed to sit down. This isn’t like at the academy.’ And now she knows what that chair’s for.” As Bud said, “This is unprecedented. It really sets junior tennis back. They might as well shut it down because no one’s ever done it like this.” He said it best. No junior competition in three and a half years. Stone cold raw and bang, bang, I beat No. 57 in the world!
The next day she plays Sanchez-Vicario and everybody is expecting 6-0, 6-0. I knew if she played her forehand 24/7 and just came in a little bit, anything can happen if someone feels pressure. Venus was up 6-3, 3-1 and I’m sitting there with Bud Collins and he said, “Rick, I’m telling you right now, this will be the greatest upset in the history of sports. Forget tennis. Forget Ali-Frazier. Forget the 1969 Mets. The history of sports. A girl walks off the street, never playing a junior tournament in the last three and a half years, never played a pro tournament and beats the No. 1 player in the universe. If you think of it in that context, it’s make believe.” And he was right. Only in women’s tennis, because there’s the age thing the kind of comes into play in that.
The next game was real close — ad, ad, ad, ad – and she lost it. Next game — ad, ad, ad, ad — lost it. At 3-all, Sanchez makes a bathroom break and takes 10 minutes. Venus thought she probably left to go eat dinner! She didn’t know what was going on. Venus is waiting out there, Sanchez comes back. I have no idea what happened. It was 6-3, 6-0 in about 20 minutes. Venus became a 14-year-old. But at the end of the day, she came to the net 33 times. I had her playing a game that was so different and people were just shocked.
That night, both Nike and Reebok came calling. Seven or eight months later after a lot of negotiations and discussions Reebok won the sweepstakes and Venus got $12 million, $2.5 million a year for five years guaranteed. On top of that, she only had to play three tournaments a year. Unreal. Can you say lottery?