Venus can do whatever she wants
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
What is Venus' Secret?
Looking out for little sister Serena is more important than a killer instinct for Venus Williams, right.
That the older Williams has no "killer instinct"?
You all know "killer instinct." You all know "win-at-all-costs."
In male-dominated sports, win-at-all-costs is our "mother's milk." So ironic. Venus doesn't live by our creed. Does that make her an underachiever, someone you wouldn't want your child to emulate?
Or does it make her better, more mature, more human, deeper than we can imagine? Does it make her our Amazon Mother, showing us a higher plane, a broader horizon, a new way to compete?
Is that Venus' Secret?
We hear, admire, even demand platitudes about "winning" from all our athlete champions all the time. A home run record "doesn't mean anything," says Barry Bonds, because the only thing that matters to him (he says) is winning a World Series. He says it because he believes it, partly, but mostly because that's how he's been trained; he well knows what we want to hear to comfort ourselves and praise him. That's what we will accept from our athletes. Why? Because, we say, it's "unselfish." Emmitt Smith "doesn't care" about breaking the NFL rushing record because the "only thing that matters is another Super Bowl ring, because four of them beats three." Michael Jordan vowed never to lose at anything to anybody, won't speak to you if you beat him ... on and on ...
Then, we have Venus, personification of still water running deep.
So what's more important, winning a third, fifth, seventh U.S. Open, after you've won two, back-to-back, in blowaway fashion? Or is it helping a younger, more vulnerable sister, one you feel responsible for, achieve her own championship potential, and feel good about herself? A champion who'd rather her sibling feel good about herself than win another and another and another title?
Hogwash, we say. Bullcrap. Weak. Soft. All the buzzwords.
Men, women, methinks we doth protest too much.
Venus is subtle in her ministrations. Serena notices. But do we?
Can we understand where Venus is taking us? I thought about this the other day, when Chris McKendry's interview with Serena ran on ESPN. Serena revealed she sneakily registered in a tournament when they were children, got all the way to the finals, where Venus beat her, 2 and 2. She said it with resignation. Then she brightened, having remembered that once Venus gave her a gold trophy for winning first place, telling Serena that she, Venus, liked the silver second-place trophy Serena had won better, so maybe they could switch. If this happens in a movie, we'd all get misty and admire Venus and understand it. And of course the less reflective but more joyous and spontaneous younger sister Serena took the gold trophy and was glad to get it. Venus was glad, too. Glad to see her happy.
That's the kind of familial love we celebrate when we go to the movies or read a story. Why is it so foreign-seeming in sport?
Maybe because it is. Maybe because sports are such a male-ribbed domain, and Venus is more regular -- not necessarily feminine, just regular. In practices, I'm sure Venus eats Serena up. Earlier in the U.S. Open, Serena was talking about practicing against Venus and said in very low tones, "Venus can do whatever she wants to do."
I could visualize the 6-foot Venus running down every shot Serena tried. Not to make her feel bad -- but to make her game better. And, yes, to get ready herself, but it strikes me that Venus has already been fulfilled by her tennis. In the vernacular of the times, Venus, as an athlete, already "did what she had to do." All that's left for her is repetition. Venus strikes me as being bored by reps of that type, especially when there is family -- and when there are new worlds to consider.
Venus Williams is likely the most awesome female tennis player ever to swing a racket, although she will probably never have the kind of statistical validation that we usually associate with such athletic dominance. If you think Martina Navratilova on her best day could beat Venus Williams on her best day, well, it's all just speculation, anyway, isn't it? But maybe there's another kind of validation. Maybe that's part of Venus' Secret, and why when she smiles, she resembles a secretive Mona Lisa instead of somebody trying to get on the cover of "Entertainment Weekly." Maybe there is a validation in helping your little sister grow up and mature. Of course, as men, we wouldn't know anything about that, would we? What human can we create, anyway? Women have that ultimate power, and that ultimate responsibility. Should they learn our way, in order to compete, or should we learn theirs, in order to prosper?
Seeing Serena and mother Oracene Williams, right, happy is worth countless Grand Slam titles to Venus.
Right now, is there any question where the maturity lies between the Williams sisters? Venus is well-named. She is so regal out there. And competitive, too. Competitive in different ways.
Serena is not necessarily insecure -- you can tell these girls came from love -- but she is a sheltered young woman who needs to be assured of her womanhood. She wants to compete with women, and on all levels, with Venus on the court, with the other women on the court, but also for attention, and yes, apparently for the attention of men. They used to call it "boy crazy," I think, and actually it's the means of a kind of self-validation of being attractive to men. I mean, look at the girl. She's attractive, great smile, great, great body. With a body like, you don't need a cat suit. A cat suit is overkill. And the blonde weave pigtail (not so much the blonde weave tresses, which are actually starting to work, in a Tina Turner kind of way). Particular the blonde weave rope pigtail that can be associated with, say, Anna Kournikova.
Serena wants to be noticed for more than just her tennis. There's nothing particularly wrong with that girlish sort of feeling. It's life. There are many ways of competing, which, after all, is another way of vying for attention, another way to get all eyes on you. Venus merely goes about her business, quietly, without any need for a sort of va-va-voom validation. Venus takes care of her personal business on the QT. I'm not going to talk out of school about her, but she seems pretty content, pretty happy, and she doesn't showboat her relationships, of any kind.
Still, Venus will never sell her sister out, or short, or backbite her on choices. Asked if she would ever wear a "cat suit" (a question intended to undermine Serena's choices), Venus would not bite, saying, she probably would, but "she doesn't do anything second."
The first thing she does is always look out for Serena.
Serena won the U.S. Open first, the first major won by the sisters, in 1999. Since then, she's won Wimbledon this year, over Venus.
Venus had won Wimbledon the prior two years, and the U.S. Open the prior two years. She had established her dominance to her own satisfaction, and even then could not fully enjoy it, in particular last year's U.S. Open, because she was worried about how Serena would take losing to her in the finals, again, just as she had been doing all their lives, basically. Venus seemed much more reflective and caring of her sister's feelings than particularly celebratory.
Is she less of a champion for that? Or more? That's her secret.
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Is it possible that some people, particularly among women athletes past and future, like Venus, compete on an entirely different level, which is to, say wider, deeper, in more of a team (family) concept?
Long-legged and powerful Venus would run old Johnny McEnroe into the ground.
They not only win, they make sure their whole family wins. Is that less admirable, or is it more admirable to constantly kick your baby sister's ass, just because you can, in front of throngs of thousands, on national TV, then talk smack to her about it, rub it in? We say Little Leaguers shouldn't celebrate, in our mind "show up" other Little Leaguers they don't even know, but then we complain that Venus Williams has no "killer instinct" for her own blood. Don't know who says we can't have it both ways; we do it all the time.
Women such as Venus might not adhere to our unspoken, inflexible code of winning, but they are just as inclined to determine an outcome, only in a different way. Not to say they are not as cold-blooded. Women are plenty cold-blooded when they want to be, just cold-blooded in a different way.
Chris Rock tells the story of how both men and women lie, but men lie small, petty, less big-picture, and more often, all the time, really. Chris Rock said a man might say, "Uh, I'm going over to Tommy's house," not knowing the woman already knows he's lying because he does it all the time. But a woman might say, "It's your baby." And you really never know. Not until it's too late.
Could be that Venus Williams is a stone-cold killer. But not of her baby sister. Just in her own way. John McEnroe babbles on about how he could beat the Williams sisters (Mac is delusional here -- you're closing in on 50, Mac, and Venus would run you into the ground; it wouldn't be a question of you winning -- it would be a question of you having a heart attack or a stroke -- and I mean in any competition with Venus), or how the top 100 or 200 men could beat Venus, yada-yada, not knowing that he is validating her by even making the stiff comparison.
Would an NBA player say he could beat a WNBA player? If he did, then that's the beginning of a new kind of competition, yes? He is acknowledging that she is a competitor with him. In point of fact, Venus can serve at around 120 mph, and with her elongated, supple body and great racket and volleying skills, she can stretch and get back would-be-winners with ease. Why can 100 men beat her? Because they are men? Because Johnny Mac, entertaining or not, thinks it's so?
The only way Johnny Mac could beat Venus Williams is if, for some reason, she felt sorry for him, and did not want to embarrass him, or did not want the attention, or any one of a dozen reasons that might be part of Venus' Secret. But I'll say this -- if, for some reason, Johnny Mac hurt Serena badly, and then played Venus, he'd get his ass kicked. Royally. It's all based on what motivates you. Or, more to the point, her. There have been women who have lifted up the front ends of cars to rescue their children who were pinned under the wheels. And you mean to say Venus Williams, properly motivated, can't return James Blake's serve? Please.
But Venus would rather see Serena return that serve successfully. That would make her happier than returning serve herself. Forget tennis. This is Richard and Oracene Williams' crowning glory, that they induced such love in their girls. That's their secret.
I believe Venus' skills are so strong, so sublime, so ethereal, she's limited only by what Venus wants to do, is compelled to do, is driven to do. Driven by killer instinct? Or, is she a new kind of athlete, an evolutionary step, perhaps, a champion woman athlete of ground-breaking, game-evolving abilities who is also something new to sports on another front -- a nurturing champion?
I also believe she'll win a third straight U.S. Open this weekend.
And that a lot of people will watch.
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Women's tennis right now is more compelling than men's, on different levels. Paradigms shift in sport -- like other paradigms, they often shift glacially. People are comfortable with the old ways. Their comfort blinds their vision. But one can say with confidence, like the old philosophy professors in college always did, that most human progress is based on subverting these paradigms. Right now, for all of Johnny Mac's protestations, all of Pete Sampras' catty put-downs of Serena's blonde weave, all of Lleyton Hewitt's abilities, women's tennis is more compelling.
Don't even attempt to prod Venus into getting catty about her sister's catsuit.
There are four levels of women's tennis now. There are Venus and Serena, raising the bar, bringing both power and movement to the game. You can't fool the eye. The human eye is always drawn to excellence, speed, skill, at a world-class, or even unprecedented level. The sisters make it more of a spectator's feast, and force some players whose game simply can't match theirs, if not out of it, then to a backstaging area, inspiring others to play the game their way and come to the front.
This is Level One tennis now.
Level Two tennis is occupied by Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, even though Capriati lost in the Open quarters. They hit hard enough, and are determined enough, and part of the charm of women's tennis is to see if they can raise their games -- that is to say, their lateral movement and explosive passes -- enough to beat the Williams sisters in a Grand Slam event. Some watch with the fervent hope that Davvy and Jen can make that quantum leap even for a week; they are compelled to watch for signs it can happen.
Level Three is occupied by Monica Seles and Martina Hingis, former multiple Grand Slam champions of major historical significance in the women's game. It is always interesting when one of them makes a Grand Slam semifinal, as Seles did at this year's Open. They bring in the nostalgic viewer, hoping a tactical miracle might occur, like when Arthur Ashe beat Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975. Skill-wise, Seles and Hingis are joined by Henin, Dokic. Semifinalist-finalist is about as far as they can go in a Slam event.
The Level Four players, the Bovinas, Hantuchovas, Mauresmos, the best of the juniors, must beat the Level Three and Two players to get to the top, to get to the big leagues of the Williams sisters, as Amelie Mauresmo did by beating Capriati, though not on Jen's best day.
Throughout all the competition, there are snarling, inexplicable, catty displays of anger, ego, attitude -- and this is among the men.
Women are not immune to this display. Everything's there to make women's tennis almost as interesting to some as "Sex In The City."
Throughout all the tennis, competition and the startlingly fast evolution of women's tennis, the preternatural calm of Venus remains undisturbed.
"Venus can do whatever she wants," Serena said, of practicing, hitting with her older sister. Somebody should tape their practices, if we want to see "killer instinct." Venus will play at her top level to make Serena better, but will find it harder to do that just to beat her for a silver plate or a trophy. She already has plenty of those. They just sit there on a mantle collecting dust. But her little sister Serena is alive, and growing up, and needs care. And from that care, the game of tennis will evolve faster, higher, further ...
Venus gains joy and satisfaction out of tennis on her terms, as the Mother of the Game, leading others to greatness.
Venus' Secret is that she is, perhaps, the first nurturing champion.
She is the Mother of the Game. The great champion who will make sure that the ones who follow her have a chance to be even greater.
If this was "Dune," Venus would be Reverend Mother of them all.
Some, men and women, will claim not to understand my math.
Some, men and women, won't like it much, even if they do.
Some, men and women, the lucky ones, raised by good mothers, will say winning is the only thing that matters to a true champion.
Venus will smile a calm, knowing smile of a Reverend Mother, of the Mona Lisa, of a good mother herding all her children under her wing, leading them to water, and the future, while saying, "Yes, dear, I'm sure, you're probably right ... keep going ... I love you."
That, to me, is Venus' Secret. And I've got to love her for it.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."