Sisters to All
Zheng Jie and Elena Dementieva have their work cut out for them on Thursday, when they try to prevent Venus and Serena Williams from meeting in a Grand Slam final for the seventh time. Yesterday, we saw
how easily Serena dismissed Polish sensation Agnieska Radwanska, while Venus made short work of perennial Wmbledon overachiever, Tamarine Tanasugarn. Factor in how mightily Zheng and Dementieva struggled to win their matches (with Nicole Vaidisova and Nadia Petrova, respectively), and it's hard not to conclude: This is going to be ugly.
Sometimes, it may not seem "fair" how easily the Williams sisters can step into a tourament and utterly dominate. Of course, you're better off excusing yourself to take a phone call from someone trying to sell you vinyl replacement windows than getting into a conversation - much less a serious one - with anyone who uses the word "fair" in a sports context, except in ways pertaining to the rules, or sportsmanship. More productively, let's pause and appreciate the Williams girls for two reasons.
First, it's become clear that in an increasingly deconstructed competitive environment, they're two twin pillars still supporting what has always been the internal logic (and unifying concept) of the game - that in tennis, every generation has one or more (but never many) dominant champions who set the generational standard and act as a measuring stick for everyone else. Take away that historic condition and tennis may as well be roulette, a game in which whoever happens to get lucky (meaning, finding her best tennis on a given day) wins; statistics tell us that it isn't going to be the same person very often, nor one whose win would be not just predictable, but sensible
. And shouldn't tennis make at least a little sense?
Or, put it this way: snap your fingers to make Venus and Serena disappear and what do you have? Dementieva or Zheng winning Wimbledon. I'm not sure that does tennis, or Wimbledon, much good, because it would underscore a kind of randomness that, for all the talk about "depth" or even "diversity", ends up taking away from, rather than adding to, the pleasure we take from sports. People may complain bitterly about players or even teams that dominate a sport; but they whine even louder when a gaggle of players more or less take turns winning events. Two things drive day-in, day-out interest in most sports - great players and great rivalries.
Oh, I appreciate that Dementieva, a two-time Grand Slam finalist, has enough game, and has played well enough over the years, to be a credible Wimbledon champion. But credility is an issue that kicks in after
an accomplishment, not before - as it did for Marion Bartoli, whose runner-up finish at Wimbledon now seems an enchanted abberation. Again - I'm glad for her, anyone who earns a berth in a major final got there the hard way and the only way, by beating everyone in her path. But our entire sense of what makes results important, and what make particular tournaments more important than others, relies heavily on the fact that certain players win more often than others, especially at the most important events. This isn't just for their own greater glory; by setting a standard, they more or less force or inspire all other players to lift their games - to work harder, compete more ardently, find a way to. . . be better.
How often have golfers or tennis players declared that Tiger Woods and Roger Federer or Martina Navratilova have forced them to work harder?
Presently, Venus and Serena (and to a lesser degree, Maria Sharapova) seem like the only things preventing the WTA from being inundated with a flood of winners who aren't capable of winning on a regular basis, and therefore can't possibly serve as omnipresent reminders of the value of winning. Oh sure, Ivanovic may develop into a dominant champion, but she isn't that yet. And Jelena Jankovic may ultimately transcend her remarkable capacity for self-sabotage (isn't it funny, how often that quality crops up in people we find "interesting"?), but she's made little progress so far in clearing that final hurdle to greatness. Sharapova herself has made the leap, but she's also demonstrated that she just doesn't have enough game, on enough big occasions, to dominate.
This year, for the first time ever
, none of the top four seeds reached the Wimbledon semifinals, which tells you a bunch of things - first and foremost, that seedings ain't what they used to be. Serena has hammered away at this point with her usual braggadocio (and yes, it's still braggadocio even if you can
back it up), repeatedly reminding us that she's a whole lot better than her no. 6 seeding suggests. You can say the same for the no. 7 seed, Venus. Let's get real, folks, Venus is a four-time champion here, defending a title, and just kicking buttski left and right with one of the greatest grass-court games any woman has ever brought to Wimbledon. What about that, exactly, screams out, Seed her 7!
The situation of the Williams sisters is, clearly and resoundlingly, a repudiation of the ranking-based seeding system, which disproportionately rewards (with inflated rankings) those women who play most often. You can defend the system convincingly; let's remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. But the Williamses have exposed the weakness of the system.
The second reason it behooves us to appreciate Venus and Serena is the Yang to this Yin. They've proven themselves able, long-term competitors despite their antipathy to playing week-in, week-out and despite experiencing bouts of flagging motivation. Guess what? Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, both Grand Slam winners, are gone. Amelie Mauresmo may as well be. Meanwhile the Williams sisters are still with us, and almost always capable of stepping in to restore some sense of order and logic to the game.
But more significantly, their approach has inadvertently created great opportunities for lesser players to perform well. They should be taking a cut from the prize-money of any women who finds herself in a quarter or semi of a tournament Venus or Serena has declined to play. The sisters have enabled many women to pad their ranking numbers, of course, but let's be more charitable to everyone concerned - it's also motivated them, and cleared the way for them to become better players.
I can't believe he ACTUALLY said that
Tennis is essentially a game of confidence - there's no other way to account for the remarkable difference in the levels of play ranging from recreational hacker to Grand Slam champion. Once you're "good" - let's say, Division 1 college good - the physical differences are almost negligible. Yet Division 1 good doesn't stand a chance on the Challenger circuit, the perennial Challenger competitor doesn't stand a chance on the main tour, and in the end David Ferrer doesn't stand a chance against Roger Federer. It's crazy how mental the game is.
But by releasing the stranglehold they once had on the game, the Williams sisters have seeded the ground for a few women who now see themselves differently in a game where how you see yourself matters almost more than anything else: Ivanovic, Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Kuznetsova and others have all benefitted from the way Venus and Serena approach tennis. I'm not nominating Venus or Serena for canonization, but I've been watching the sisters for a few days now. They just tower over this field, by almost any standard you care to employ. I can only imagine the plight some recent Grand Slam champs would be facing if the sisters were completely focused on, and dedicated to, tennis.
Zheng is only the second wild card to reach the women's semifinals at a major, and the other player so distinguished shouldn't even be counted. It was Monica Seles, who reached the U.S. Open semis in 1995 when she was returning to the tour as a multiple Grand Slam champion and former no. 1.
My, my, how far the women have come - with a little help from their friends.