The French Open removed all doubt: Serena and Venus Williams are in a class by themselves.
By L. Jon Wertheim.
Sports Illustrated, June 17, 2002 v96 i25 p62+
Serena and Venus Williams were leaving Roland Garros one day last week after winning their matches at the French Open. Sitting in the back of a courtesy car on the way to their hotel off the Champs-Elysees, they playfully asked if they could take the wheel of the Peugeot. The chauffeur declined, but who could blame the sisters for asking? They are, after all, driving everything else--attendance, television ratings, general interest--in tennis. This was only reinforced in Paris. In a match that surely made Jean-Marie Le Pen choke on his escargots (Two African-American women in the final? Sacre bleu!), Serena beat Venus 7-5, 6-3 last Saturday to win the women's title, the second major of her career. As always in their encounters, it was a carnival of unforced errors, an awkward, arrhythmic, anticlimactic affair. But that didn't much matter. Les soeurs Williams were the twin toasts of the tournament.
In reaching the final Venus and Serena fulfilled their father's longtime divination and achieved the No. 1 and No. 2 world rankings, respectively. It's fitting that sisters who are so close that they share a South Florida mansion also share a penthouse atop the rankings. Try to name another profession--golf, neurosurgery, playing the glockenspiel--in which the top two practitioners in the world are siblings. "History," says Serena, "is definitely being made."
Yet the Williamses have entered a new phase. The beads are gone. Their dresses and tresses no longer have much shock value. Their pot-stirring father, Richard, is, mercifully, less and less of a presence. ("He's in the States, where he belongs," his estranged wife, Oracene, said last week.) The novelty appeal has faded. Instead, the sisters are perceived--and they perceive themselves--first and foremost as tennis players, a grim reality for the rest of the field.
In Paris they ripped through the draw like tornadoes through a trailer park. Both have games built on power, but they complemented their force with depth and leavened it with feathery touch shots and clever angles. Even established players such as Monica Seles and the resurgent Mary Pierce could offer only scant resistance. There were, however, a few pratfalls along the way to the finals.
Serena lost the first set of her fourth-round match to Vera Zvonareva, a 17-year-old qualifier from Russia, but that served only to make her angry, and she ran off 12 of the next 13 games. Serena was also down a set to Jennifer Capriati in their thunderbolt-hurling semifinal but rallied to win 3-6, 7-6, 6-2.
Venus, meanwhile, was hardly in danger of exceeding the Gallic 35-hour workweek, taking every set she played until the final. In the semis she was fortunate to draw 87th-ranked Clarisa Fernandez, a waifish Argentine who was the surprise of the tournament. After getting (red) dusted 6-1, 6-4 in 56 minutes, Fernandez shook her head and muttered to her coach, "La fuerza. La fuerza [The power. The power]."
And to think, this was on clay, a surface that allegedly neutralizes pace and demands baseline consistency, never a Williams strong suit. In fact, before this year neither sister had made it past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. But what the Williamses lose in consistency they make up for with their speed and athleticism, retrieving balls that no other players can reach. Besides, they were nursed on Har-Tru, the claylike surface on courts they played on in Florida, where they lived and trained as juniors--another keen piece of foresight by Williams pere. "Coming in, people may have thought that this was our worst surface," says Serena, "but I think we showed that we can play as well on clay as on anything else."
That's not all they revealed. The longstanding rap on the sisters was that they are arrogance personified. During the tournament there were abundant examples of their hyperconfidence, including Serena's speculation, after her second-round win, about which dress she would wear in the final. But the sisters showed plenty of humility as well. Like Oracene, who sat in the stands applauding opponents' winners as lustily as she did her daughters', Venus and Serena were the pictures of decorum on the court. No swearing. No protracted debates over lines calls. No racket chucking. "They know it's just a sport--that's the way they see it," says Oracene. "Just go out and have fun."
It can still be as hard to get a handle on the sisters' personalities as it is to read their 120-mph serves. When they spoke last week of their manifold interests--in fashion, interior design and foreign languages ("I love all the arts, and I love administration too," Venus said cryptically)--one was never quite sure what was fact and what was fiction. But in tennis, merely claiming to have a life outside the sport is noteworthy.
The sisters' comportment contrasted sharply with that of Capriati, the defending champion. Earlier this spring Capriati was dismissed from the U.S. Federation Cup team after she violated team practice rules and unleashed a profane tirade at captain Billie Jean King. In Paris, Bud Collins, tennis's doyen, and Chris Evert, Capriati's onetime mentor, had the audacity to criticize the outburst during an NBC telecast. The Capriati camp promptly sent word that both commentators were banned from interviewing Jennifer, even if she were to defend her title.
Strangely dour throughout the tournament, Capriati also ripped the WTA tour's ranking system, which would have made Venus No. 1 even if Capriati, who won the Australian Open in January, also won the French. ("If you're looking at it mathematically," Serena riposted, "it makes a lot of sense." Ouch, bebe.) After Capriati's semifinal shootout with Serena, which dropped Capriati to No. 3, Serena paused near her at the net and leaned in to exchange Euro kisses and sweet nothings. Capriati kept walking. Following the match Capriati was asked whether it might have taken longer for the Williams sisters to reach their top rankings were Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis not out with injuries. "Taken longer?" Capriati sniffed. "I don't know if it would ever happen at all."
She couldn't have been more wrong. Venus, for starters, has won the last two Wimbledons and U.S. Opens. And had the Williams sisters played as many tournaments as the other top women, they most likely would have been Nos. 1 and 2 much earlier. What's more, Capriati, Davenport and Belgium's Kim Clijsters--the three players best able to match the sisters' power--have combined to beat the Williamses just once in their last 13 encounters. "Right now they're clearly dominating," says Nathalie Tauziat, a Top 10 player last year who's now a commentator for French TV. "The scary thing is, they're just starting to enter their prime years."
If the Williamses are threatening to Tigerize women's tennis, the men's game suffers the opposite fate: unremitting parity. Say, what happened to Switzerland's Roger Federer, the supposed breakout star, who won the big tune-up in Hamburg and whose likeness was splayed on a gigantic billboard outside the French Open grounds? He couldn't manage a set in his first-round match against Morocco's flashy Hicham Arazi. Whither Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, the top-ranked ATP player? He lost in the fourth round and left Roland Garros to jeers for having decapitated courtside geraniums with his racket. What of Sweden's Thomas Johansson, who won the Australian Open? Out in round 2. As for Russia's Marat Safin, the handsome, personable all-surface star, he lost in the semis and then asserted that "it's not a big deal" if he never wins another Grand Slam event.
The men's champion in Paris, Spain's Albert Costa, played classic dirtball tennis, outhustling countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero in a four-set final. In so doing he became the eighth male player to win a title in the last eight Grand Slam events. "Everybody can beat anybody," says Safin.
While this makes for highly competitive matches, it's hard for the ATP to market and promote players who are not consistent winners. Small wonder, then, that the men's tour has been making overtures to the WTA, inviting the women's tour to relocate its offices from St. Petersburg to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where the men are headquartered, and looking into the possibility of holding more joint events. This interest in joining forces with the women's game--unimaginable five years ago--has been glossed over with corporate-speak such as "building synergies," "creating efficiencies" and "integrating resources." But it boils down to this: 32-year-old Andre Agassi won't be around much longer, and no other male player comes close to the international star wattage of the Williamses. Why not try to get in on the action? Says Kevin Wulff, the WTA tour's CEO, "[Courting the women] is the smart thing to do, and they realize it."
There's one glitch in the women's game, however, one that even Richard Williams probably didn't envision. For any number of reasons--the sisters' familiarity with each other's games, their similarity in style, their emotional bond, their sharing of a coach--matches between Serena and Venus have, invariably, been stinkers. The sisters may be the New York Yankees of tennis, a dominant force amassing championships in bulk, but their finals against each other feel more like split-squad games than a World Series. Plus, given that they'll be on opposite sides of the draw by virtue of their rankings, the Williams-Williams final will surely become more common.
On Saturday the capacity crowd at Roland Garros was restrained throughout both sets, unsure whether to back one sister at the expense of the other, aghast at the mis-hits that landed in a different arrondissement from the court. The fans saved their loudest applause and displays of emotion for the trophy ceremony. The sisters won over the Parisians by delivering part of their addresses en francais. Then, as Serena held the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen aloft, her older sister took hold of a Nikon SLR camera and began taking snapshots.
Watching them charm the crowd on one of tennis's grandest stages, one couldn't help marveling at how far they've come from the pocked blacktop courts of Compton, Calif., where they first learned to belt a tennis ball and were imbued with their us-against-the-world attitude. More than a decade later, they hit their strokes more ferociously than ever, and "us" is winning in a romp.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Time, Inc.