Article:Venus, Serena reclaiming their dominance
Venus, Serena reclaiming their dominance
By Henny Ray Abrams, AP
The Williams buzz is back, thanks to the power of two.
With victories in two of three Grand Slams this year, Venus and Serena Williams are reclaiming their dominance in the game they ruled from 2000-2003. Even rivals say women's tennis is better for it.
How's that for the power of two?
"Every day they are active and visible in tennis, the sport is stronger," tennis legend and women's rights pioneer Billie Jean King says. "They have the 'it' factor, and people want to see that and will always support it."
Venus and Serena have always generated attention. Who could not find something compelling in a tale of two African-American girls raised in gang-ridden Compton, Calif., by a father who somehow molded two of his children into world beaters?
"There's just this mystique of seeing them together," marvels U.S. Fed Cup captain Zina Garrison, who has known the sisters since they were kids. "Two great champions in one family — wow."
With their outsize games clicking and their bodies holding up — Serena won the Australian Open and Venus captured Wimbledon — women's tennis can expect a dramatic plot twist when the U.S. Open, the year's final Grand Slam, begins Monday in New York.
"I think a lot of people started watching tennis because Serena and I were doing things that were so different on the court, and I still think we still do a lot of things that are amazing and different and athletic," says Venus, 27, who is 15 months older than Serena. "It definitely brings more viewers to tennis."
Says Serena, whose comeback from a severe calf strain in the fourth round of Wimbledon became an instant Williams classic: "It's like when Tiger Woods is playing and winning. … It's great to see someone of a different background and culture be able to do well. I just think that that's the reason that everyone gets so excited."
Peers who have found themselves on the losing end of the sisters' vaunted power — and sometimes ungracious words when they win — agree the game gets a jolt for the better when the sisters compete.
"They push us to lift our games," says Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli, who adds that they "bring a lot of interest from outside" the sport.
"It just brings a little spice to tennis," eighth-ranked Nadia Petrova of Russia says.
Sisters' impact widespread
The power of two can be seen in the numbers — and beyond.
CBS' four highest-rated U.S. Open women's finals during the last decade all involved Venus and Serena (1999-2002). The first prime-time final, in 2001, when Venus topped Serena, was the highest rated since 1985 and the fourth highest in three decades.
Between ESPN and ESPN2 in the last five years, at least one of the sisters has been in seven of the eight most-watched tennis telecasts.
Their appeal goes beyond TV. At bars and cafes the country over, sports fans who know little of tennis carry an awareness of what's happening with them.
They also have made an impact on minority participation. According the USTA, a third of all new players at the grass-roots level are African-American or Hispanic.
"I can't help but think that Venus and Serena are drivers behind that," says Jane Brown Grimes, the USTA's chairman and president.
The sisters also have barnstormed cities without WTA events the last three years, raising $540,000 for charity and local community programs. Serena says room for progress remains. Venus contends their biggest contribution is simply showing up in the winner's circle.
"I definitely think more minorities can play tennis," Serena says. "We've come a long way, but obviously there is still space to go. It takes time. It takes people like Althea (Gibson) and Zina and Venus and myself to keep it out there and to keep fighting and playing."
"The best way definitely is winning Slams," Venus says. "That motivates all kinds of people to pick up a racket."
Both sisters are thrilled about the U.S. Open's opening night ceremony commemorating the legacy of black tennis trailblazer Althea Gibson, who became the first African-American, male or female, to win the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open) 50 years ago. Among the attendees will be Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Aretha Franklin and Carol Moseley Braun.
Limited tennis schedules
Many fans — and tournament directors — only wish they could see more of the sisters.
They have averaged fewer events than their peers overall. Serena averaged 10.6 events from 2002-2006 and has played seven this year; Venus averaged 14.6 events from 2002-2006 and has played nine this year. From 2003-2006, No. 2 Maria Sharapova of Russia averaged 16.3 events. No. 1 Justine Henin of Belgium averaged 14.4 events from 2002-2006, and she has played 10 this year.
In recent summers when the tour swings through North America, the sisters have been absent. Since 2003, each has averaged about one tournament during the six weeks between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. That is considerably less than similarly ranked players such as Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and the recently retired Kim Clijsters. Henin, too, has played just once since Wimbledon.
"I think I'm playing enough," contends Venus, who played in the Fed Cup and in a tournament in San Diego before pulling out of Toronto with tendinitis in her right knee. "I definitely want to help women's tennis and help tennis in general. At the same time, I want to look out for my own well-being, too."
Serena, who pulled out of three events, says the limited schedule has kept her mentally fresh and helped her deal with personal struggles, such as the drive-by shooting death of half-sister Yetunde Price in 2003.
When the sisters are not playing, the ongoing evolution of their distinct personalities has helped maintain public interest.
Florida-based Venus has taken a leadership position in the women's game, with steady boyfriend Hank Kuehne, a PGA Tour golfer, at her side. She has campaigned for equal prize money in tennis — realized this year for the first time at all four majors — and been a prime mover behind the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote gender equality in sport.
"Basically, I guess my position beyond a tennis player is evolving," says Venus, who carries herself with an almost stately air.
The more gregarious Serena has spent much of the past few years in and around Hollywood, attending events such as last month's ESPY Awards and pursuing her acting career with guest roles on TV shows such as ER and Law & Order. Serena also dabbles in fashion with her own nascent Aneres line and is dating actor Jackie Long.
Asked to compare herself to Venus, Serena says she is more "outgoing" and "L.A.-based."
According to Venus, the sisters remain best friends and are in many ways alike, though "Serena is definitely the younger sister She's the one we all spoiled. She definitely gets her way. She's also a lot of fun. I'm definitely like the older sister who tries to be more responsible and tries to take care of everything."
As if to highlight their differences, Venus recounts the discomfort she experienced while shooting a promo for UNESCO in San Diego a few weeks ago in which she had some lines.
"I'm not the actress, you know," she says.
Don't count them out
Fed Cup captain Garrison thinks the Williamses have helped push the envelope.
"Each generation has brought something new," says Garrison, who in 1990 became the first African-American since Gibson to reach the Wimbledon final. "Venus and Serena have allowed women of color to realize they can do anything they want to do. Althea opened the door. Venus and Serena knocked it down."
Will they knock down the door at the season's last Slam? Despite their early success at the Open — three of the family's first five majors came in New York, including four in a row from 1999-2002 — neither has advanced past the quarterfinals in the years since.
A number of match-ready contenders such as Henin and defending champ Sharapova won't make it easy. But perhaps more than any other players in history, Venus and Serena don't follow the rules. As they have shown, they can come out of nowhere to win.
"There's always doubters out there," Serena says, "but you know, my sister and I always believe in ourselves. We're always going to do what we like to do. And we're going to do it the way we like to do it."
Adds Venus: "Well, of course I'm going into New York to win. I'm not just going for a good appearance. That may have been acceptable maybe my first year, but I've always wanted to win."