No Longer Outsiders, Williams Sisters Are Still Different
No Longer Outsiders, Williams Sisters Are Still Different
The New York Times
By SELENA ROBERT
The invitation-only tennis society no longer stares at Venus and Serena Williams as if they were two gate-crashers who just swiped through the icing of the petit fours.
Over the past five years, Venus and Serena have taken over the establishment and made it their own with a bold style and haymaker swings never before witnessed in the sport. As they have become less of a curiosity and more of a fixture on the scene, it is easy to forget how Venus and Serena would be folk-tale characters if not for their flesh and bone, how the passage of two African-American sisters from the inner city to worldwide fame would be a fantasy if it weren't so real.
It is easy to get lost in the victories that have left Serena No. 1 and Venus No. 2 and forget their journey along the way to winning 7 of the last 11 majors. Venus has four and Serena has three as they arrive at the United States Open this week.
"I can compare it to if Tiger Woods had a brother who was No. 2 in golf," said Mary Carillo, a former player who is a CBS analyst. "That is basically what Venus and Serena have done. It's one of those remarkable stories. It's so improbable that it almost seems impossible."
But despite the Woodslike social impact the sisters have made as minority success stories and the similar backgrounds the athletes share as products of public parks, despite the sisters' unmatched dominance in their sport and their charismatic star quality, Venus and Serena are not afforded the same reverence from their peers, total embrace from fans or margin for human error that Tiger Woods has enjoyed.
He can curse on the golf course, duck uncomfortable issues, receive a reported $60 million a year to pitch corporate products and withdraw from events with little backlash. It is not the same for Venus and Serena. While the sisters have disarmed many of their critics by maturing into gracious champions, they are still scrutinized on a harsh level by jealous peers and by fans who seem to resent two powerful black women leading change.
While Venus and Serena are sports icons, transcending tennis as cover subjects on magazines like Time, according to Forbes's Celebrity 100 list for 2002, they are also well behind the male stars in pay, a disparity of a different sort.
"I live comfortably; I'm grateful and I'm not a greedy person," Venus Williams said in an interview last week. "Nowadays, in this market, you have to be an athlete who is superspecial, and you have to win all the time.
"But the thing is, women are historically paid less than men. That's changing, but that's a factor that plays into it."
According to the Forbes list, Venus's annual income is $11 million, while Serena's is $8 million. Three years ago, Venus signed a $40 million deal with Reebok for five years, and Serena could approach those figures with a coming shoe deal, with suitors like Nike vying to sign her away from Puma.
As well as Venus and Serena have done — and they are the first to appreciate it — their income is still in the same bracket as that of players like Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati. In contrast, Andre Agassi's income is listed at $18.5 million. Ten years ago, Jim Courier, the No. 1 player, had an income reported at $9 million a year.
"Perceptions about men and women are different," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports and Celebrities. "But there is a great potential for Venus and Serena to create change and close that gap in how women athletes are viewed.
"When the physical skills are close to a man's skills, that's when you'll see other women's sports take off like women's tennis has. In basketball, it's too big of a difference. But Venus and Serena play above the rim in their own way. When you see them, there doesn't seem like a lot of difference between how they play and the men."
While Venus and Serena have a mannerly approach to tennis — they refrain from expletives and do not bicker with umpires — their muscle is unwelcome to some fans.
Last month, a Wimbledon cabdriver underscored one slice of public opinion when he told a carful of reporters that he believed the strength of Venus and Serena was "unnatural" and "unfair." He said he longed for the days when women played a "feminine" game.
Boring: that is how players like Justine Henin have labeled the matchups between Venus and Serena. Phony: that's how Jennifer Capriati views Venus and Serena's rise to No. 1 and No. 2. Fixed: that's how Amélie Mauresmo sees the showdowns between the sisters.
Jelena Dokic, ranked No. 4, said, "I think tennis, for me, was more exciting 5 or 10 years ago than it is right now."
Martina Navratilova disagrees. Like many, she watched Serena take Wimbledon from Venus in a match of top quality and unprecedented might. "I think people need to check where they are coming from with those kinds of comments," she said. "These are two good athletes going at it, and I think they are great for the game."
Where is the negativity coming from? Tennis officials have privately suggested theories over the past few months: the culture of the teenage-based sport is innately immature (everyone is picked apart); the image of two strong-willed black women is still viewed as a threat to parts of society (code for racism).
Above it all, Venus and Serena have never complained, never accused.
"You have to be satisfied with you and who you are," Serena said after her Wimbledon title. "Venus and I have learned that we're satisfied and we're happy with us. We don't have any problem with anyone because you have to be happy with the person inside. When you're a little bitter and a little angry, then you're going to become resentful. Instead of becoming resentful, you should go do something about it."
Venus and Serena took their image into their own hands after one important turning point 18 months ago in Indian Wells, Calif. Venus pulled out of a match with Serena four minutes before their semifinal.
The timing was terrible for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons: that same week, a supermarket tabloid reported that their father, Richard Williams, had fixed their semifinal match at Wimbledon a year earlier.
Unable to dissociate themselves from their controversial father until recently, the family took a painful hit in Indian Wells. As Venus and her father made their way down the steps to watch Serena play Kim Clijsters in the final, a cascade of boos drenched them, a reaction Richard Williams later labeled as racist. The fans also took their hostility out on Serena, actually cheering on her double faults.
At the time, Agassi had a prescient response to the situation, saying Venus and Serena should take the controversy as an opportunity to "make assessments and judgments as to how you want things to go in the future, to realize that those things are in your control."
Woods isn't asked to apologize for withdrawals. Basketball stars, baseball icons and men on the tennis tour bail out of games, matches and events on a regular basis.
But Serena and Venus have come to terms with the scrutiny placed on them. Learning from Indian Wells, Serena withdrew from a tournament in Montreal two weeks ago but faced the crowd of 11,000 and voiced an apology in nearly flawless French.
They cheered her effort. Crisis averted. Another step in responsibility.
"You get a few blowups like Indian Wells," Tracy Austin said, "and you start to learn. I think they have matured. And I've got to say, it's tough to mature in front of the whole world."
Once seen as aloof, Venus and Serena Williams are known to reach out to players who are injured. Once viewed as arrogant, they have learned to credit their opponents.
"When I was younger, I didn't always compliment my opponent," Venus said. "When I lost a match, I'd just say, `I think I played bad.' It's how you handle things."
Venus continued by admitting: "But really, I still believe that I'm the best, and I'm going to be top dog.
"I don't know why anyone would be offended by that, because, to be honest, they should be thinking they're the best, too. I know I've heard other players say, `I thought I'd never be here,' but that's not how I felt. When I was younger, my mom and dad said, `You're going to be there,' so of course, you believe them. I guess if you look back, they brainwashed me to think I was the best."
If you look back, Venus and Serena have come a long way in public opinion, but through little fault of their own, they have miles left to go.