Sisters take on the world - and logic
Sisters take on the world - and logic
Sunday August 26, 2007
After a lavish ceremony to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Althea Gibson's first US title, Venus and Serena Williams, the two women who carry the hopes of the nation at this year's US Open, will play their first-round matches back-to-back in the Arthur Ashe Stadium tomorrow.
It is a symbolic piece of scheduling, encapsulating, as it does, one of the smallest elite clubs in sport - African American tennis champions.
What Gibson and Ashe would have thought of the sisters, whose attitude to their minority standing in this sport has been so different to the two pioneers who preceded them, is hard to gauge. But admiration, coupled with no little bewilderment, would have featured prominently.
It would have been inconceivable for either Gibson or Ashe to treat their sport in such seemingly cavalier fashion as the current title holders of the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles. Inconceivable because neither could have imagined giving themselves a cat in hell's chance of winning anything if they spent the majority of the year playing here and there, on and off, when and if their state of health or state of mind allowed.
But the book from which Richard Williams taught his daughters to play in a gang-infested neighbourhood of Compton, Los Angeles, was never meant to be more than a guideline. This singular man had his own ideas of how to bring up two tennis champions and when he wanted some special technical advice he turned to one of the game's true professors, Jack Kramer, unfazed by the fact that the man who won his US title 60 years ago, lived on the smart side of town in Bel Air.
So we arrive back at a familiar position on the eve of a grand slam, asking whether Venus and Serena can march in here on the back of a summer spent doing absolutely everything except play tennis and win something for America. If they can't, only Andy Roddick and James Blake in the men's draw, have even the remotest chance of doing so.
But it is impossible to ignore the fact that Venus and, in particular, Serena, keep on confounding logic as well their critics. Venus had done nothing in the preceding months to suggest she was going to win Wimbledon - but she did. Serena, unfit and lacking match practice, had no business winning in Melbourne back in January.
So examining how they have done in the past few weeks is really a spurious exercise. For the record, Venus has won two Fed Cup matches against Russia and got as far as the quarters in San Diego before losing to Anna Chakvetadze. Serena? Hasn't hit a ball since Wimbledon. It is her wrist that's been the problem. She ought to compare notes with Andy Murray.
But somehow both seem to have maintained some kind of physical fitness and Serena, as ever, will be motivated by the thought that everyone is writing her off. 'Proving people wrong is my greatest motivation,' she says with that wide smile.
Both have been hard at work this past week, hitting the New York party circuit and fulfilling endless sponsorship obligations. Unlike Maria Sharapova, who tends to go the Rolex route, Venus likes to remember where she comes from and has linked up with a low-cost clothing line, agreeing to design sportswear for items costing less than $20.
Although they remain very close, the sisters' personalities are beginning to become more distinct. Venus has a steady boyfriend, the golfer Hank Kuehne, who watched her win Wimbledon, and she seems a lot older than her slightly giddy sister.
'There is nothing constant in Serena's life,' says Andrea Leand, a former tour player who remains in close contact with many players. 'She has so many things going on but somehow seems to fit in some tennis now and again.' If, against the odds, they reach the semi-finals, it will be the first time they have played against each other since 2005 when, in the fourth round here at the US Open, Venus won 7-6 6-2. That same year, Venus ended Serena's six-match winning streak against her by winning in Miami. Overall, they stand poised at seven victories each.
Presuming, if one dares, that a third grand slam title in 2007 is beyond the Williams family, Justin Henin, who won the Canadian Open in her only appearance since Wimbledon, seems to have the best chance. The Serbs, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, Jamie Murray's mixed doubles partner, played a fantastic match against each other in Los Angeles two weeks ago - Ivanovic fighting back from a break down to win in the third - and could both enhance their growing reputations. But it will need an improvement in form and fitness for Sharapova to retain her crown.
One newcomer worth watching is the Hungarian Agnes Szavay, 18, who has been scything through lesser tournaments on the Sony Ericsson WTA tour and should present quite a challenge to the number-seven seed, Nadia Pretrova. Szavay qualified for New Haven last week, where she had another good tournament.