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Sisters (not) doing it for themselves
The Australian Open provides a timely reminder of the Williams' decline and fall
By Paul Newman, Tennis Correspondent, in Melbourne
Published: 13 January 2007
When Serena Williams arrived in Tasmania for her warm-up tournament before next week's Australian Open, a Women's Tennis Association representative tentatively inquired whether there might be a VIP area at the airport where the former world No 1 and her mother, Oracene, could be welcomed.
Hobart is not used to passing celebrities - the tournament director said that the American was "arguably the highest profile athlete in the world from any sport to compete in Tasmania" - and Williams had to make do with a private limousine which took her straight to her hotel. After saying she was "excited to be here", she spent the rest of the day in her room.
If the 25-year-old former winner of all four Grand Slam tournaments is serious about continuing her career, she will have to get used to events like the Hobart International, where the prize fund of $170,000 (£87,225) is small change for a woman who has earned more than $16m (£8.2m) in tennis winnings alone and much more from her commercial activities.
After playing five tournaments in the last 16 months, Williams is now ranked No 94 in the world and will not get into many of the leading events without a wild card. Having been beaten in the third round in Hobart by the world No 56, Sybille Bammer, she is now threatened by Mara Santangelo, the world No 30, in the first round here next week.
Williams sounded less than convincing when she said she had "no doubt" she could become No 1 again. "Physically right now I'm feeling good and I'm taking it literally one day at a time," she said. "I just think I'm a little rusty."
If there was surprise in some quarters that Serena has ventured Down Under, the announcement that her 26-year-old sister, Venus, had pulled out of the season's first Grand Slam tournament hardly raised an eyebrow. The world No 48 has not slipped as far as her sibling, but her appearances have been almost as rare. Venus has been plagued by wrist and elbow injuries.
It is a far cry from the days when the sisters dominated the game. Venus finished in the world's top 10 every year from 1998 to 2005, while Serena was a top 10 player from 1999 to 2005. Venus won 33 singles titles, including five Grand Slam events, while Serena's 26 wins included seven Grand Slam crowns.
They are only in their mid-20s, yet their last major successes already appear like brief flickers of a dying flame. Venus' 2005 Wimbledon victory has been her only win in a Grand Slam since the 2001 US Open and Serena's 2005 triumph here has been her lone success since Wimbledon in 2003.
While both women may have been distracted by their growing interests outside the game, in the case of Venus her tennis problems appear to have been largely physical. Nick Bollettieri, whose coaching played a key part in the sisters' success, worries that the current wrist injury could end her career. "The way Venus hits the ball with her backhand she puts a lot of wrist into it," he said. "The shot puts a lot of strain on her wrist."
Zina Garrison, the American Fed Cup captain, fears that lengthy absences have put too much stress on Venus's body. "She looks strong and athletic, but the way her body moves all over the place sometimes can place wear on it," she says.
In contrast, Serena's physical struggles largely appear down to a lack of commitment and motivation. Hard work last summer at Bollettieri's academy in Florida brought Serena back to somewhere near peak condition, but the signs this week were that she is again struggling. Bollettieri was concerned to hear Serena's verdict after her loss to Bammer.
"I think she played the match of her life," Serena said. "I've never heard of her, quite frankly. You just wish these players would play like this all the time instead of just against me."
The veteran coach said: "I was disappointed to hear that, because when you're one of the best in the world you know that's what opponents will do. It's a phenomenon that you create with your own excellence. Opponents know they have to be at their peak to have any chance. To hear that made me think that she must be rather unsure of herself. I think the Australian Open will tell us a lot about what direction she's heading in.
"When she was here last summer I thought to myself: 'She could get back to the top.' And I still say that if you gave me Serena for three months I would have her back in the top five. But I'd want her here full-time, working and training hard: there'd have to be no going back home. I'm pretty certain the only way Serena can get back is by being 100 per cent committed: 75 per cent just won't do.
"We had her looking pretty darned good when she went to the US Open. She's the sort of person who has to sweat and work - and she did. But I don't think she can come and go with this. If she's carrying too much weight, it will inevitably count against her in the end."
Bollettieri had been expecting Serena at his academy last month but believes her involvement in a court case forced her to change her plans. The proceedings in West Palm Beach shone an interesting light on the world of the sisters and their father, Richard, the key figure in their careers. A promotional company claimed that the sisters and their father had reneged on an agreement for the women to play in an exhibition match in 2001. They said the event would have made a profit of about $45m (£23.1m), of which 80 per cent was to go to Richard's company.
Acknowledging that he had drawn up terms of the agreement with the promoters, Richard insisted he told them they would have to go through IMG, which represents his daughters, to complete any deal. The promoters said he made no such disclaimer.
Richard accepted he had lied to the promoters when he told them his daughters were aware of the negotiations. Both testified they knew nothing of the deal and would never have agreed to play. They also insisted their father was not their agent.
During the trial, however, the promoters' legal team showed jurors tax returns that indicated payments to Richard Williams by his daughters for management fees. Venus's tax returns showed that she paid her father nearly $1.6m (£820,000) between 1999 and 2001 for "manager and coaching fees". During testimony Venus said the fees were all for coaching, while the Williams' lawyers said the payments were listed in such a way for tax purposes.
The court ruled that Richard was liable but would not have to pay damages. The jury cleared Venus of all allegations but said that Serena had let her father act as an agent for her. However, she did not have to pay any damages.
If the promoters' lawyers were trying to drive a wedge between the sisters and their father, they did not appear to succeed. "My dad has the influence of a great father and a great person," Serena told the court. "My dad came from nothing and made myself and my sister to be somebody. We're not going to let somebody take that away from us."
Throughout their careers the sisters have looked within their own family for support. It may be no coincidence that Serena's 57-week reign as world No 1 ended in the week in 2003 that her older sister Yetunde - the "nucleus and rock" of the family - was shot dead in an incident near her home in California.
When competing at the same tournaments, Venus and Serena spend much of their time with one another. When on their own, they clearly miss each other and are in daily contact. "I don't really know any other players extra well," Venus admitted last year. Asked when she might retire, she suggested she would do so when Serena quits.
They share similar off-court interests, particularly in music (both play the guitar) and fashion. Serena, who has also enjoyed some acting opportunities, has her own fashion label and cosmetic range. Venus, who attended design school last year, has set up an interior design business.
One former great, Chris Evert, believes that Serena, in particular, is squandering her talent. In an open letter last year in Tennis magazine she wrote: "In the short term you may be happy with the various things going on in your life, but I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 per cent of yourself into tennis. Because, whether you want to admit it or not, these distractions are tarnishing your legacy. I don't see how acting and designing clothes can compare with the pride of being the best tennis player in the world