What makes women’s tennis the hottest game in town? Strength, speed, and~writes James
Kaplan~the Williams sisters.Photographed by Bruce Weber
Thirty-five years ago, I watched my first women’s tennis tournament at the old
Eastern Grass Court Championships in South Orange, New Jersey, where the
rackets were wood, the tennis clothes white, and the prize money nonexistent.
Winners took home trophies. And the women’s game,circa 1965, was a slower,
paler version of the men’s competition.
Fast-forward to 2001, when this month’s Ericsson Open, in Miami, will award
prizes of up to $375,000 in the women’s side of the tournment. These days,
while the men’s game struggles to recapture the fervor of the seventies and
eighties---when players like Bjorn Borg, John McEnore, and Boris Becker
generated rock-star-like idolatry, not to mention ticket sales and TV ratings—
women’s tennis is a game whose time has come. Big-time. Total prize money
for the Sanex WTA Tour (Sanex, body-care-products division of Sara Lee,
is the tours’ chief sponsor) will approach $50 million this year. Last year,
a record 4,100,000-plus fans attended tour events worldwide. Women’s tennis
has become a quarter-billion-dollar-a-year business, not even including the
Grand Slams(Wimbledon and the Australian, French, and US Opens). The
glamour and excitement are unprecedented—carrying the sport beyond its
die-hard fans to a general public that doesn’t know the difference between
a drop shot and a drainpipe.
But the game’s explosion into the larger world was really triggered by two
players unlike any who had come before. They are, of course, the glorious
Williams sisters: first, Venus and, more recently, Serena. Charismatic, stylish, and
supremely athletic, this sister act has set the previously homogeneous world
of women’s tennis on its ear.
At the 1997 US Open, Venus became the first woman to reach the finals in a debut
there since Pam Shriver in 1978. The next year she recorded the fastest serve ever
in tour history with a 127-mile-per-hour ace in Zurich. She had a 35-match
winning streak last year, which included two Grand Slams.
Serena, just fifteen months younger, began garnering awards as half of the
Williams sisters doubles team, but soon, with a serve that has been known
to reach 119 miles per hour, she came into her own. In the beginning of the
1999 season, she was number 20 in the world. But by the end of the year she’d captured five WTA singles titles, including the US Open, thus cruising
up to number four and pocketing a cool $2 million-plus in prize money.
As the 2001 season gets started, she is ranked sixth, while big sister Venus
is poised, at world number three, for an assault on the summit.
The typical rules don’t seem to apply to the Williamses. Venus and Serena
played nine and eleven tournaments, respectively, in 2000, while, for instance,
Martina Hingis played 20 events, and Anna Kournikova, 26. In the throes
of some sort of identity crisis, an injured Venus took the first four months
of the year off and focused on fashion design—a jaw-dropping move
in an era when most tour players are reluctant to step off the carousel for more
than a week or two for fear of losing rank. But Venus came roaring back
from her hiatus to win Wimbledon and US Open titles, not to mention
two Olympic gold medals. Experts debate the sisters’ significance to the
business of tennis, but the fact is, when the Williamses sat out the
Chase Championships last fall, attendance slid by nearly 2,000. Venus
had a rough start at the Australian Open(no doubt due, at least in part,
to a hectic double life as student and pro tennis player) but, as of press time,
both sisters had advanced to the quarter finals of the season’s first
Quite simply, the Williamses—who grew up playing tennis on the tough
asphalt courts of inner-city Compton, California, before they were
five years old—are two of the most astonishing and magnetic athletes ever
to pick up a tennis racket. Between them, they own seven WTA doubles titles
and 23 single titles.
But it’s more than their physical fitness that makes them stars;it’s their physical
presence. I first exprienced this last December, when Reebok announced
its $40 million endorsement deal with Venus. I’m six foot two, but Venus,
who is six-one and was in only slightly raised shoes, seemed to loom over
me when we met after the press conference. At the same time, in black tights
and a midriff-baring sleeveless shirt, she looked beautiful. When she entered
a room packed with flashing and clicking cameras, the atmosphere charged up
like air before a summer thunderstorm. Even though she can blush like a
shy schoolgirl, her demeanor is nothing short of queenly. She smiled
brilliantly throughout the proceedings, until someone asked, only half joking,
if President-elect Bush had been in touch with her. (After she won the 2000
US Open, Bill Clinton called her on the phone—and Venus promptly
asked him to lower her taxes.) “I guess my people and his people will have
lunch,” she replied with a straight face.
Both Venus and Serena realize what defines style, and it shows. Both have been
known to shift out of autopilot and perk up when the subject turns from tennis
to Prada and Gucci. And each has set her sights on a future career in fashion.
“If I wasn’t playing tennis I’d probably be almost finished with school
and close to being a designer by now,” Serena says. How many athletes are at the
top of their sport and exude elegance? The Williamses’ athletic and aesthetic appeal
makes them ideal spokespeople for any product or cause under the sun—an
opportunity previously reserved for male sports stars.
Serena signed a five-year contract with Puma in 1998,
which could reportedly earn her $20 million, and Venus’s
five-year endorsement deal with Reebok is the
richest ever for a female athlete. This was a revolutionary
contract, putting her in the same financial league
as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. In addition,
there are the deals that take the sisters beyond tennis
and into the world of fashion—like the contract the
two signed last year with Avon, and Venus’ recent
contract with Wilsons Leather, under which she will
endorse and design garments. As their agent Stephanie
Tolleson of the International Management Group
observed, “I believe they’ve transcended the sport.”
Shortly after the press conference, I asked Venus whether
she thought she was powerful. “I think so,” she said. “I
got a lot of punch behind my shots.” But it was little
sister Serena who later acknowledged that these days,
power necessitates a broader definition, even in sport.
“Power is an attitude, a presence, a mind-set,” she said.
“It is how you treat other people, what’s important
to you. I have a strong personality and a strong
character. I have a strong family and a strong faith.
That’s what make me powerful.” She laughed. “Power
is in the head. But a 130-mile-per-hour serve
doesn’t hurt either.