Keeping Up With the Williamses
Can anyone but Venus beat Serena, or vice versa?
We have a few pointers for anyone brave enough to try.
Sports Illustrated for Women by Jack Birth
After most show-court matches at Wimbledon the players take quick showers and then wearily submit themselves to 10 minute press conferences. Not many journalists attend these conferences, but that's OK. because the Wimbledon's press office provides transcripts. The reason nobody goes is because the players aren't going to say anything provacative or controversial. They are simply there to provide the normal noises - known as quotes that help round out the tennis writer's copy, because stories look funny without them.
With the best intentions I do go and plan to ask the women of the Sanex WTA Tour questions like, What are your favorite Sanex products? or Which players look the best naked? But then I get real and just sit back and watch as yet another hack asks if dominance of the Williams sisters might be bad for tennis.
Given the no-win consequences of declaring a strong opinion on thw Williams nonissue, no player ever responds to this question with the slightest hint of interest or conviction. They mumble platitudes, which writers can then take and recontextualize to try to illustrate whatever point they are trying to make.
It is true that the French open and Wimbledon this year Venus and Serena were like 2 runaway trains on parallel tracks, inevitably meeting, merrily tooting their horns but not exactly colliding, in the finals. (Serena won both, making the career head-to-head score V 5, S 4). As the U.S. Open approaches, the question will surely resurface. Must we simply learn to love Williams vs. Williams -to accept that for the few years women's tennis, rather than offering truly open competition, is merely going to be a series of very, very impressive exhibitions?
The most common anti-Williams gripe is that their head-to-head matches lack passion. But what does that mean anyway? They're 2 of the best players in the world, and let's not forget that they are, after all, two very different people. As with any great rivalry, each tries her hardest to win. So what if they're not snarling across each other at the net like a pair of cheesy wrestlers? Instead of trying to solicit jealous moaning about the invincibility of the Williams sisters, we should be asking: How can they be beaten?
There at least a half dozen women who could be topping the tour right now if Richard Williams had decided to sit back in the 1980's that there would be more of a future for his daughters in golf or horseshoes or frozen yogurt franchises. But right now both Venus, 22, and Serena, 20, seemingly can do anything there challengers can do- and do it better. Even an amalgram of Lindsay Davenport's power, Martina Hingis's tactics, Jennifer Capriati's intensity, Justine Henin's backhand, Monica Seles's lethal angles and Jelena Dokic's agression would...well, it might beat the Williamses. But hey, this isn't science fiction, this is the WTA Tour.
Two early matches at Wimbledon, however suggest a possible alternative scenario. In the third round Serena needed two tie breakers to edge Els Callens, a 31yr. old Belgian qualifier ranked 119 in the world. Callen's first serve averaged 98 mph, and she kept the ball down on her returns - out of Serena's crushing wheelhouse - with relentless slicing. Unable to pound the ball and skidding repeatedly on the parched grass, a frustrated Serena committed a series of unforced and quasiforced errors, barely scraping through a first set tiebreaker. In the second set Serena neutralized the slicing by rushing the net more often, even on her second serves, but she continued to be rattled and again squeaked through, winning 7-6(7-5), 7-6(7-2).
Afterwards, when asked about Callen's tactics, Serena breezily declared, "I actually like it when people slice to me. It's like my favorite thing." But clearly it is, like, not. And so this is lesson 1 in How to Beat a Wiiliams: Don't even try strength against strength. Even if you can drill the ball like Capriati, even if you are Capriati, you still cannot pound the ball as hard as Venus or Serena. Sure, a Williams might smash the ball past you, (they don't like playing plinky-plink tennis), but if you can hang in there and keep the ball down, she might also drive it out of bounds or into the net.
In her third round match Venus dropped the first set to another 31yr. old: a 110th ranked Maureen Drake. It was only set Venus was to lose in the tournament before her showdown with Serena. The difference between Drake and Callens is that Drake didn't even play particularly well. Drake beat Venus in that first set because Venus's head arrived on court and around 20 min. after her body. And so this is Lesson 2: Whiz through the first set against a Williams as quickly as possible, before she wakes up.
In both cases the Williamses were not focused in Week 1 against the lower-ranked players. Week 2 was a different story. As they responded to their wake-up calls, their few credible challengers started hitting the snooze button. Capriati, while triumphing 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 over a tougher-than-expected Eleni Daniilidou of Greece, petulantly demaned that a chatty spectator be tossed out -eventhough the rest of us couldn't hear the guy, standing on a distant balcony high above the court. She then got thumped resoundingly 6-3, 6-2 by an uncharacteristically consistent Amelie Mauresmo of France. Kim Clijsters, her right shoulder in rehab, couldn't escape the second round. And Monica Seles, still lashing her delightful doomsday strokes but perhaps a bit too fatalistic, all but projected herself as an also-ran in her first press conference. She finally succumbed to Belgium's Justine Henin, the one current, top-ranked player to offer a viable threat to the power gals.
Henin observed Lesson 1 against Venus in a semifinal, playing her own smart, precise, nonpower game, and even stuck with Lesson 2, grabbing the first 2 games before Venus realized the match had begun. But she never stood a chance.
Henin, thought the tiniest of the top women, is just too good not to be taken seriously. And a semifinal match was too advanced, too blatantly crucial to catch Venus napping. As Henin explained afterward, I had nothing to do. She didn't let me play. I tried to go to the net. I was serving well. But she did great returns. So, I mean, I had nothing to do."
Hopeless words, but that's the point. The only way to beat a Williams is by stealth, so if anybody is going to beat a Williams at Flushing Meadow, it's going to be a disciplined unknown serving hard and returing methodical slices during a Week 1 match. Or maybe it'll be someone else employing other tactics at some other time. Or maybe nobody will beat them except each other -ever again. Hey, if we knew fr sure, that would really be bad for tennis.