Women's tennis trying to keep up with Williamses
By Jeff Metcalfe
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 23, 2003
Given Serena Williams' complete dominance of women's tennis, it's hard to remember where things stood just a year ago going into the State Farm Women's Tennis Classic.
Jennifer Capriati was No. 1 and hotter than Arizona in July, coming off her second consecutive Australian title and third Grand Slam win in five tries. Neither Serena nor sister Venus made it to the Australian final: Venus losing to Monica Seles, and Serena not playing because of an ankle injury. Instead Capriati outlasted Martina Hingis in a second-set tiebreaker and won 6-2 in the third.
At the time, there was more reason to slam Serena for not following up her 1999 U.S. Open title than to bet on a Serena Slam. But with Scottsdale as a springboard, Serena pulled off the unfathomable, consecutive wins at the 2002 French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and '03 Australian - defeating her sister in the finals of all four.
Now, she's larger than life and seemingly everywhere you turn - from Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue to her soon-to-be-released likeness on Close-Up toothpaste tubes.
This week as she returns to defend her State Farm title, the landscape has shifted dramatically. Capriati is coming back from eye surgery, Hingis has all but retired due to foot and ankle pain, Lindsay Davenport was out for half of last year due to knee surgery and Seles is in the twilight of her career, leaving a 21-year-old Serena who appears indomitable to all but 22-year-old Venus. She's even publicly professed her goal to go undefeated this year.
Venus doesn't intend for that to happen, issuing some tender smack after winning last week's Proximus Diamond Games in Belgium: "If you want to challenge me here, Serena, if you are watching, come on."
Her sister is not the only one scratching at Serena's undefeated itch.
No. 3 Kim Clijsters and No. 8 Davenport, the second and third seeds in the $585,000 State Farm Classic, believe they can do it.
Clijsters beat her in straight sets at the Women's Tennis Association season-ending championships and nearly did it again in the Australian semifinals, only to see Serena rally from 5-1 down in the decisive third set.
"My career is not around trying to beat the Williamses," said Clijsters, a 19-year-old Belgian who fell 6-2, 6-4 to Venus in the Diamond Games final. "I see it as a motivation. It's an honor sort of for me to be called that way (most likely to beat a Williams).
"In that match in Australia, I think Serena won it, it's not that I lost it. I kept playing the same level, but she just raised her level a bit. I hope I get more chances because those are really the matches that you want to play."
Room for improvement
What is perhaps most scary about the Williams sisters is their room for improvement.
"They're tough, unbelievable competitors and athletes, but normally pretty erratic," said Rafael Font de Mora, who coaches Meghann Shaughnessy of Scottsdale. Shaughnessy was off to an 11-0 start this year before losing 6-2, 6-2 to Serena in the Australian Open quarterfinals. "They are at another level from the rest of the pack, but they can get a lot better.
"Sometimes with Venus, there is a chance to break back, but with Serena, if you don't hold your serve, it's difficult to break. She rarely had any unforced errors against Meghann. When she's confident, she's almost impossible to beat."
Williams beat Capriati in a quality three-set State Farm final last year and went three sets with Hingis in the semifinals. She followed that up with a win in Miami, then had a 12-match win streak snapped by Patty Schnyder in the Charleston quarterfinals and lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne in the German Open final.
But from the Italian Open on, it was almost all Serena. She won six of her eight tournaments, including three Grand Slams, with the only losses being to Chanda Rubin after Wimbledon and to Clijsters 7-5, 6-3 in the tour championships final.
Her .918 winning percentage (56-5) is only the 26th best in WTA history and nowhere near Martina Navratilova's record .989 (86-1) in 1983. Only a windy French Open quarterfinal loss to Kathy Horvath wound up between Navratilova and a year's perfection.
Staying at the top
To think that Serena, playing fewer tournaments, could navigate all the land mines between her and an undefeated season is unlikely. Venus pushed her to three sets in the Australian final, not to mention her Houdini-like escape from Clijsters and a first-round three-setter against Emilie Loit, who nearly squashed Serena's quest before the goal was even out of her mouth.
"Everyone is trying to beat me. I probably just needed a reminder," Williams said after beating Loit 7-5 in the third set. "I never thought I was going to lose that match. I did think 'gosh, this is bad,' but I never thought I was going to lose."
Williams had an easier time at the Open Gaz de France, winning four straight setters while dropping 17 games total. Now play shifts outdoors, an unpredictable transition, and three top-10 pursuers, as well as the likes of No. 27 Shaughnessy, are anxious for a crack this week at Williams, who is in her seventh consecutive month as No. 1.
"Having superstars has always enhanced a sport," said Kevin Wulff, WTA chief executive officer. "Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana. I can't think of too many exceptions where having superstars is not a good thing for the sport. When you have great players at the top, it makes all the other players work harder and become even better.
"It takes more than 12 months to say a player is dominating. Martina Navratilova dominated. You had Steffi Graf for several years. The Williams sisters have the potential to say they will be added to that group, because I know they're committed and phenomenal athletes."