Nasdaq-100 Open: Serena's World
Nasdaq-100 Open: Serena's World
March 19 2003
By Harvey Fialkov
"I'm really, really, really happy," Serena Williams said after her three-set win in Mel bourne final, and it shows as she lifts her trophy. (AP photo)
Serena Williams opened up to talk show host Oprah Winfrey in November, telling her that for years she has lacked an identity because "there were two Venus Williams in the Williams family."
Not only has Serena emerged from her big sister's shadow, she has eclipsed Venus both on and off the court in terms of ranking, Grand Slam titles and marketability.
Serena enters this week's Nasdaq-100 Open as the top seed and No. 1 player in the world after a dominant run of four consecutive Grand Slam championships, all accomplished by beating No. 2-ranked Venus in the finals.
In turn, advertisers who once clamored for Venus or the sister package are now knocking on Serena's door. The aspiring actress has flashed her pearly-white winning smile so often in the past year while winning eight titles that Close-Up toothpaste made her its spokeswoman for $500,000.
With her $13 million Puma shoe and clothing deal nearing expiration, Serena's IMG agents are negotiating a shoe contract that may rival Venus' $40 million Reebok deal signed in 2000.
While Venus is covering condo walls with Russian oil paintings in her new V-Starr interior design business, Serena graced the cover of nationally syndicated Parade magazine on Sunday, displaying her sculpted physique in burnt-orange hot pants.
Serena, not Venus, made the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Madison Avenue is threatening to break up the doubles team by singling out Serena in Tiger-like fashion.
"As Serena has matured on the court and become more successful, her personality has emerged," said IMG business manager Stephanie Tolleson, who represents both sisters. "It changed her marketability because companies got a better understanding of Serena as a person."
If the long-legged, 6-foot-1, stoic Venus is Vogue, then the extroverted, 5-10, muscular Serena, who made a splash in a skin-tight black cat suit at last year's U.S. Open, is MTV.
"Print ads purposely want to form their own identity. Everybody lumps the two sisters together, but they are two distinct people and personalities with two different looks and likes," said Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, which hires celebrities for ads.
According to Marketing Evaluations, which measures popularity of celebrities for advertisers, awareness of the two sisters is at an all-time high. Serena is recognized by 72 percent of the general population, compared to Venus' 73. Internet queen Anna Kournikova is at 58 percent.
While Serena claims that the sisters are closer than ever, she recently bought a $1.4 million condo in Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, often leaving Venus alone in their sprawling Palm Beach Gardens home, dubbed La Maison des Soeurs (House of the Sisters).
"To us, tennis isn't No. 1 in our lives," Serena said. "We always just try to realize that family is first, and I think, if anything, we're closer now. ... We realize that not many people share this uniqueness."
Robert Lister, a sports psychologist, said, "It's very healthy. I'm sure Venus wishes Serena success in [avenues] other than tennis, and a little separation won't pull them apart."
The family closeness could have been shattered last year when their parents' divorce was finalized. But Richard and Oracene's split may have strengthened the sisters' bond and accelerated their independence.
"When we're in town together we just hang out," Serena said. "She's my family. We watch tons of TV, and she'll cook for me, and we like doing a lot of activities together."
The dramatic role reversal seemed to coincide with her 6-2, 6-2 semifinal rout of Venus at last year's Nasdaq-100 Open. Venus had easily won five of the first six historic sibling matchups before dropping the last five.
"It was hard because I'm so close to Venus and we're so close to each other, and I always wanted to be like her," Serena said. "That was definitely a big win for me. I mean, it has never been easy for me to play Venus, not only the fact that she's my sister as well as the fact that she's a great player.
"It was a little bit of a mental block for me as well," added Serena, who at 21, is 15 months younger than Venus. "Then to finally win a match against Venus in a big tournament was a pretty big confidence booster for me, and it's OK to do well against your sister, and I think that was a big point that I was able to assess and think finally I was able to do what I knew I could."
Psychologists now debate which Williams sibling owns the mental edge since Serena has turned the tables.
"It's difficult for any No. 2 to overcome a No. 1," Lister said. "Now magnify this by five times since they're sisters and they're so close in age and companionship. You have to give Serena the edge, but Venus has the ability and could win at any time, unless Venus has mentally thrown in the towel and said, `I'm No. 2.'"
As Serena's tennis identity approaches legendary proportions, she's now seeking fictitious characters to create, as she did on an episode of ABC's My Wife and Kids.
She told her agent that she wants to play a victim, a stretch for someone who has brutalized her opponents, winning 50 of her last 52 matches.
"When Serena's plugged in, she's unbeatable right now," said Rick Macci, who trained the Williams sisters in their formative years. "When [Serena] was 10, she was already a pit bull.
"The gap is not as wide as people think. If Venus wants to, she can do it. It's not a matter of practicing 100 more serves or a few more dumbbells in the gym. It's really between the ears. She's got to want to dig deep, compete even harder."
Some have questioned the desire and fire of Venus.
"I don't play the same game Serena plays," Venus said at Wimbledon. "For her, it's all or nothing. For me, it's not this."
After falling to Serena in the Australian Open final, their most competitive match, Venus admitted her sister was "mentally tougher."
A few weeks later, Venus showed Serena-like spunk after winning a tournament in Antwerp, Belgium.
"If you want to challenge me here, Serena, if you're watching, come on," Venus said.
Richard Williams always predicted Serena would be better than Venus, but Serena won't admit to holding an edge over a sister she idolizes.
"I can't say I'm better than Venus. I just have been winning," she said. "You can never really say what's going to happen. ... I think we both are doing really well and anyone would love to be in our shoes right now."
So while Serena juggles tennis with photo shoots and interview requests, as well as hanging out with rapper Jay-Z and receiving roses from Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Venus brushes up on her French.
"I think I've made a few different big steps as us being separate people," Serena said. "Some people can realize and see us in different lights. Every photo shoot I do, it's just another step forward."
If the tide on court doesn't turn, perhaps it'll be Venus on Dr. Phil's couch, questioning her identity because there are two Serena Williams in the family.