The Williams Sisters' Effect
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
SOMETIMES you stumble into a situation that's a lot more harrowing than you could have ever imagined.
Yesterday afternoon at the United States Open, I walked over to Court 18 in search of the answer to a tennis question. The question turning over in my mind for the last few months was what impact the Williams sisters were having at the junior level. Not sociologically, but competitively.
What was the view of Venus and Serena Williams from the junior level? Were coaches scouring every nook and cranny looking for players 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-1? Who was being groomed? Specifically, was there a junior player on the horizon, a 15- or 16-year-old who would be ready in five years to stare down one or both of the Williams sisters? Has she even been born yet?
You hear a lot of names, and experts said that 16-year-old Ally Baker could someday be the answer to my question (and tennis's prayers). Her match was an hour away, so I walked over to Court 6 to watch 15-year-old Jamea Jackson. She was playing Salome Devidze in front of mostly empty stands.
Jackson's father, Ernest, a former N.F.L. defensive back, sat and watched in that classic posture of the parent on pins and needles. He said he was dying a hundred deaths, watching his daughter compete and climb up the junior ranks.
Ernest Jackson said the Williamses' impact was certainly felt. The junior girls were more aggressive, he said, or at least his daughter was.
"She doesn't want to be a retriever," he said. "She doesn't want to run balls down. Venus and Serena attack, so she tries to have an attacking game, too. That's one of the things you see the kids doing."
Was there a Williams family model to follow? Was there a mold?
Jackson made a major commitment by sending Jamea to Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla. He had gone with her but was ambivalent about the move. She was getting tennis instruction, but he had relinquished a significant degree of control at a crucial point of her emotional development.
Richard Williams did not relinquish control, and this is the part of the Williams-sister model that cannot be duplicated.
"They had a foundation," Jackson said. "They know who they are, where they came from, and they had an attitude."
Jackson's daughter is an amateur. She is good, but she doesn't quite have that attitude. Her father couldn't really give it to her, and he didn't think players really learned it at the academy. Sort of like learning to play jazz at the conservatory.
"They may give you knowledge of the game," he said. "They don't give you an attitude. The attitude has to start internally. Tennis is a small part of it."
Jamea Jackson lost the first set, 6-1, but came back. After she won the second set impressively, 6-2, she asked for a trainer because of leg cramps.
Ernest Jackson muttered that he had warned his daughter all day to drink more fluids. The match progressed, and her cramps got worse.
Jackson kept up a running critique during the match. He pointed out that his daughter couldn't get any lift on her serve. He was right; she served as if she were standing in clay. She grimaced. "That's the worst part as a parent, watching your child suffer," Jackson said.
He was on his feet now. His daughter was up, 4-3, in the third set, but she could barely walk. Finally, Jamea Jackson signaled to the umpire that she couldn't continue. Her father walked over to her coach and put his head in his hands. Finally he walked over to his daughter; they hugged and slowly walked away.
On Court 18, Baker was rumbling through her match against Linda Smolenakova, although with a bit more difficulty than expected.
"But I won," she said after her 6-2, 6-4 victory. "I guess that's the important thing."
Baker was 5-foot-2 three years ago; now she is 5-11. Baker, who just turned pro, said the Williams sisters had made her focus on getting stronger, staying in shape, becoming more aggressive. She said that in five years she might be ready to face them on an equal footing.
But after watching Venus Williams vanquish Monica Seles last night, five years may be too soon. There is a reason I hadn't come across a threat to the Williams sisters. She probably hasn't been born yet.
I LOVE THE IMPACT THAT VENUS/SERENA ARE HAVING ON YOUNG ATHLETIC GIRLS.