Multitasking Williams sisters seek to be on top
By Doug Smith, Special for USA TODAY
Five years ago, Serena and Venus Williams became the first sibling pros to dominate their sport. They met in the four consecutive Grand Slam finals in 2001-02 and stayed No. 1 and No. 2 in the rankings for a year.
Though neither is driven to pursue tennis single-mindedly, both say they'll be together again at the top of the rankings, perhaps by the end of the year.
"I would never say we can't do it," says Serena, who won the Australian Open in January and has jumped from No. 95 to No. 12.
Venus, who has climbed from No. 48 to No. 22, says, "We just have to stay healthy. … We're just as good, and we still set the standard for women's tennis."
This weekend they will represent the USA against Belgium in the Fed Cup quarterfinals in Delray Beach, Fla. The sisters, making their first Fed Cup appearance together since 2003, say they're playing mainly to support team captain Zina Garrison.
In separate phone interviews, they also responded to the latest round of criticism about their choice to follow a different path from other champions; talked about their determination not to return to the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells (Calif.), where Serena was booed repeatedly six years ago; and weighed in on the Don Imus controversy.
Serena, who continues to see acting as her true calling, has made the best of only four appearances on the tour this year. She beat No. 2 Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final and No. 1 Justine Henin in the Sony-Ericsson Open final. A groin pull forced her to withdraw from the Family Circle Cup last week.
"I don't want to play 30 events," Serena says. "I just want to make a select number of tournaments and do well in those. I'm more focused on the Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open), but any tournament I enter I want to win."
Rick Macci, who trained the sisters for three years before they turned pro, says, "Serena has always been one of the mentally strongest women athletes in any sport. If you don't practice a lot, don't play a lot of tournaments, the toughest part is the mental game.
"The bigger question is how much would she dominate if she had the dedication and drive of Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova? If she was cut from that mold, we might be seeing the greatest player ever."
However, all-time great Billie Jean King says Serena still can become an all-time great despite her limited schedule.
"She has to make sure she's disciplined, take good care of her body, so that it won't break down and be really totally fit so she can be the best she can be," King says. "I told her to forget about being No. 1, forget about the ranking. I want her to feel productive and fulfilled. I don't think we've ever seen her at the best she can be. That's how talented she is."
More to life than tennis
Though tennis takes priority, Serena won't abandon her dream of becoming an accomplished actress.
"I love acting in any form, that's my favorite thing outside of tennis," she says. "I like the whole (Hollywood) scene. It's really me. I want to be an action hero. I've turned down so many roles because of tennis. Because of that, (movie) people say, 'Well, she's not focused.' But I don't care because I don't know of any actress who can win Wimbledon. So I do have things that they don't have."
Venus' attention often is deflected by her interest in fashion and her real estate investments.
"My design company is a lot of work," says Venus, who continues to pursue an associate degree in fashion design. "My business is always growing. It's like a living entity, always changing, and you have to change with it. I decided it was important for me to be more financially literate, so I've been reading books about economics and investments. As you get older, you've got to be more responsible."
The sisters' father and coach, Richard, who predicted that his daughters would be Nos. 1 and 2 long before they achieved that distinction, says they'll do it again.
"They're so mentally tough, it doesn't matter how bad they're playing, their opponent is still going to have trouble getting them off the court," Richard says. "I fought like a mad dog to keep tennis from being a big part of their lives. We try to get Venus and Serena to understand that there's life beyond the baseline, and they must prepare for that life now, not after they retire."
Richard says he'll also fight a new WTA Tour rule, which becomes effective in 2009, that would require top players to compete in several events, including the Indian Wells event, where he said he and his daughters were subjected to racial taunts by fans. Believing that Venus faked a knee injury in a default to Serena the day before in the semifinals, the Indian Wells crowd booed Serena continuously during her victory against Kim Clijsters in the final. Richard said he and Venus were peppered with racial taunts when they entered and left the stadium. Neither sister has played in the Indian Wells event since the 2001 incident.
"I will be seeing an attorney about that (rule change)," Richard says. "I don't think you're going to get them to play somewhere where they don't want to play. I don't go back to places that treat me like that."
Larry Scott, the chief executive officer of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, says he'll hold additional private discussions with the sisters before speaking publicly on the issue.
The sisters were drawn back into controversy last week when Don Imus was fired from his CBS radio job and MSNBC for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." In discussions of other racially charged comments made by Imus or his associates, an incident involving the Williams sisters resurfaced. An Imus associate once said that the sisters should not be featured in Playboy but instead in National Geographic.
"I didn't see it, but I heard it was really negative," Serena says. "I understand the guy was fired for making such a ludicrous, racist and inane remark."
On Imus' comment about the Rutgers players, Venus says, "I don't know why he said that. I think it was an impulse and, unfortunately, everybody is paying for it including him. It just shows that you have to be more tactful these days and think before you speak."
Cynthia Barnes, a New York based child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, says such comments can linger and be as damaging as physical or sexual abuse.
"With emotional abuse, words can be powerful, especially when the words attack not your behavior or your actions, something you can change, by your genetics, how you look. There's nothing you can do about that. I think Venus and Serena have conducted themselves in a queen-like way. But it has to affect them. That kind of comment is horrific. Black people have to rise above those comments."
On the sisters' dominance five years ago, Barnes says, "What was more phenomenal than that? That hadn't happened in any other sport. To me, they were a bigger story than Tiger Woods."
2 Grand Slam (Mixed Doubles) Titles
(1) Wimbledon ('98), (1) US Open ('98) (both w/ Max Mirnyi)