From Chicago Tribune:
In a league of her own

January 14, 2003

When we left the women's tennis tour at the U.S. Open in September, it had been reduced to Serena and the shambles. Serena Williams had not only overcome all obstacles, but also knocked them down, broken them apart and swept them to the side of the road.

The competition had disappeared. The only hope for catching her seemed to be in having time off before the Australian Open, which started this week, to relax, recover, rejuvenate.

So this is how things started, with an unsettling rant from Jennifer Capriati. She came to Australia well overweight, one reporter wrote.

"If he touched my stomach right now, it's a rock,'' she said. "If he looks at my body type, I don't think anybody would say I was overweight. I'm not model-thin. I'm big-boned, and I'm not heavy. Everyone has their own body type, and it's not about how you look. It's about how you feel.''

It goes on. And on. And then Capriati lost in the first round, having run out of gas. Meanwhile, Venus Williams seemed to continue her defeated theme, talking in a lengthy New York Times Magazine article Sunday about her new passion, interior decorating. She has started her own company.

Notwithstanding a tough three-setter early today against unheralded Emilie Loit, Serena Williams seems to have gotten into her opponents' heads and turned them into fatigued (Venus Williams) or edgy (Capriati) also-rans. Much like Tiger Woods did to his opponents, Williams has turned hers into mush.

This might be the year of Serena not only in tennis, but in all of sports. Did you know she won 61.5 percent of her tournaments last year, including three majors?

"The main headline could be her,'' said Sandy Bailey, senior editor at Sports Illustrated and founding editor of the recently defunct SI for Women. "People might say the big story could be Shaq or Lance Armstrong. Others would say it has to be a football player. The only thing people would hold against her is that she plays tennis. Right there is a dramatic sea change.''

How far can this go? Serena is shooting for her fourth consecutive Grand Slam title in Australia and reportedly is considering a five-year, $50 million deal with Nike that would give her the biggest endorsement contract ever for a female athlete. The previous highest was Venus' $40 million deal with Reebok.

So the big questions are these: Is Serena the most dominating athlete in all of sports? Even more than Woods, who took the mantle from Michael Jordan? And if so, can that translate into unheard-of popularity and marketability for a female athlete?

Is this country ready to have a woman as its most dominating, most popular athlete?

"First of all, it's easy to acknowledge how much of a breakthrough a contract like that is, as Venus' contract was a few years ago,'' said Nova Lanktree of Chicago-based Lanktree Sports, a company that matches athletes with advertisers. "This is significant for women's sports. But is the world ready for a woman to be the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of this decade? Well, I don't know that the world is unready for that.''

Not unready?

That's Lanktree's way of saying Williams is nowhere near catching Woods in popularity. She has, Lanktree said, surpassed other female endorsers, such as Michelle Kwan, Mary Lou Retton, Chris Evert and Jackie Joyner.

"Never have we seen these kinds of dollars attached to them,'' Lanktree said. "It takes visibility, recognizability, likability and credibility. What's important is that what Serena has done already is monumental. Still, her numbers are far, far short financially from Michael and Tiger. And even Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus. Even Joe Montana. But it's a step.''

The step comes at an important and shaky time for women's professional sports. The Olympic success of American soccer, volleyball and softball has not led to popular professional leagues, as predicted, and has led to only a few lucrative endorsement deals. Soccer hero Mia Hamm, despite tremendous popularity, never came close to the endorsement dollars Serena is attracting. Meanwhile, the WNBA has been teetering, surviving only by the backing of NBA dollars. Even the shuttering of SI for Women was at least symbolic.

"Women's sports have grown in popularity in ways we didn't expect them to and have not grown in ways we did,'' Bailey said. "We're still applying the men's sports model, number of spectators, to see if women's sports are successful. We've all seen the numbers, something like one in 27 girls [participated in high school sports] before Title IX and one in 2.5 now. But that doesn't translate directly to fannies in the seats. Women look at sports in a different way, and the first business to solve that is going to make millions. So far, a number of businesses have lost millions.''

Still, Serena seems to be breaking into new areas of acceptance for female athletes, with advertisers beginning to chance the idea that she might be able to sell products traditionally pitched by men.

Lanktree said in the last few years, women, usually actresses, have begun to make their pitch. Sela Ward sells Sprint, and Kate Jackson sells Mercury. Hamm and Kwan, too, have sold financial services.

For now, though, Williams isn't close to becoming the new Tiger, at least off the court/course. "But I can see a scenario that you don't have to look far into the future for that,'' Bailey said. "The Williamses keep adding fresh and unexpected twists to their story line.''

On the playing field, Williams made $3.9 million last year and Woods $6.9 million. Williams won eight of 13 tournaments and Woods five of 18. Williams won all three majors she entered and Woods two of four.

"Still, it has been a very small window for Serena,'' Bailey said. "Last week, [New York Jets quarterback] Chad Pennington was the next Joe Namath. Today, he's not.''

For now, Williams needs to keep winning. Win in Australia, and she will have what is being called the Serena Slam: four majors in a row but not in the same calendar year. It was the same thing with the Tiger Slam a few years ago.

Williams said her goal this year is not to lose a match. Meanwhile, her competition hardly looks formidable. Venus Williams says she wants to play less. And Capriati, the angel-turned-deviate-turned-angel, is turning sour again. After the U.S. Open, she was in a New York bar at 3 a.m., grabbing a microphone, mugging for photographers and stripping down to her black bra while singing, "I wanna take my clothes off,'' from Nelly's "Hot in Here.''

If Serena meets her goals this year, it would be seven consecutive major championships, something Tiger never has approached. Sound impossible?

The advertising world is betting on her.

Copyright The Sun-Times Company