From Wertheim (Cnnsi):
Here's a hypo for you: If Venus and Serena Williams were to quit tennis today, what would their legacy be? Would either make the Hall of Fame? Would they be seen as real pioneers or just as talented black players who had a lot of athleticism? <br />—Chris Collins, Atlanta
There's something inauspicious about starting the year with a hypothetical question. But I was addressing a tennis club not long ago and the same question came up, so I guess inquiring minds want to know. First, it would shock no one if either of the Williams sisters, Venus in particular, decided that she had had it with tennis and was moving on to study Japanese floral arrangements, join the Marines, play minor league baseball in Birmingham, whatever. Part of what makes them such compelling -- and, in my mind, admirable -- figures is that tennis has never been the be-all, end-all. Still, I have a hard time seeing either quitting the sport in the near future. Right now, they are simply tantalizingly close to dominating.
Anyway, the answer is that it depends to which sister you're referring. If Serena quit today, I think she'd be perceived as a preposterously talented player who didn't underachieve, per se, but didn't exactly max out either. She showed great potential when she won the 1999 U.S. Open but failed to build on that achievement and couldn't pass the mental test of competing against her big sister.
As for Venus, if she pulled a Barry Sanders this afternoon, I still say she goes down as an all-time great. Four Slams in 14 months puts her in select company and certainly earns her a bust in the Hall of Fame. She'd become something akin to tennis' Sandy Koufax. Even though her numerical accomplishments don't come close to those of Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Monica Seles, etc., Williams' athleticism, power, teeth-loosening serve and iron will leave little doubt she's on the short list of the best ever.
Would the sisters be considered pioneers? Interesting question. Some of you have pointed out in the past that we make too big a deal about the race of the sisters, since other African-American champions preceded them. True enough. Still, in my mind, their presence, their bravado, their indifference to (disdain for?) the establishment, their daring outfits, their penchant for melodrama make them pioneers -- almost regardless of race. Beyond bringing tennis to a demographic that had little exposure to the sport, they claim one other sign of trail-blazing: They showed that there isn't one correct path to becoming a tennis pro. For this alone -- for demonstrating that one can succeed without sacrificing one's teenage years to the altar of a soul-less academy -- they deserve great credit.