Can anyone consistently beat the Williams sisters?
By Matthew Cronin
While the spunky Justine Henin-Hardenne basked in the glow of stopping the seemingly impenetrable Serena Williams 21-match winning streak at the Family Circle Cup last Sunday, top-ranked Serena and third-ranked Venus Williams casually waited for the start of US' Fed Cup tie again the Czech Republic, where they are more heavily favored to lead a shut out than an elite Marine Corps. division in a backwater Iraqi town.
Third-ranked Belgian Kim Clijsters joined her compatriot Henin in dreaming of one day surpassing the imposing Williamses * who have combined to win seven of the last nine Grand Slams * as does the muscular but often-injured French brawler, Amelie Mauresmo.
Add to that "A" list of contenders the not-so-gentle Jennifer Capriati, the smooth Slovak Daniela Hantuchova, the feisty Justine Henin-Hardenne, and voracious American veterans Lindsay Davenport and Chanda Rubin.
Then there is a "B+" list led by the nation-less Jelena Dokic (the ex-Aussie with a Yugoslav passport and Florida and Monte Carlo residences) and the insatiable nation of Russia, which has marched almost as many wide-eyed troops than Stalin once sent out against Hitler: Myskina, Bovina, Dementieva, Zvonareva, Kuzentsova and many, many more.
Mauresmo said that when Clijsters beat Serena in the final of the '02 Home Depot Championships and then nearly upended her in the semifinals of the '03 Australian Open, it showed her that "Serena's not unbeatable." But she has tremendous respect for the Williamses, who she says have brought the game to another level physically. "What Serena can do from some positions is impressive," Mauresmo said. "Not a lot of us can do that. Last year it was obvious that Serena dominated. No one can say the contrary. I just hope there's not a huge difference between us and I can close the gap."
Rubin, the only player to topple Serena last summer, says that the Williamses have set the bar to world-record heights.
"To beat either of them, you have to go to an extra gear," Rubin said. "You can't just sit on the baseline and just get balls back and win. You have to put it on the line, take your chances and try to make something happen."
But it's one thing to say you are going to take risk and its another to have the weapons in your arsenal to be able to pull off a victory. Serena and Venus have the game's most effective first serves, can crush winners off both wings from the baseline, return serve with ferocity, volley as well as any elite player, move as fluidly as even the most fluid of players, are also darn right fast, know how to compete and win as convincingly as anyone.
In other words, they're intimidating.
But as Mauresmo says, tennis has proven itself to cyclical and it's probable that either Serena or Venus will slump sometime in the next year. Whether they will be forced into a slump by much improved competition or whether they'll simply fall off due to lack of interest is an open question, but there's no doubt that there's a dedicated group of elite contenders locking their lips in anticipation of their fall.
CLIJSTERS: 'WHY CAN'T WE EVER TALK ABOUT ME?'
Clijsters is only 19-years-old, but may already in danger of becoming the Hana Mandlikova of her generation – the obvious No. 3 player, who can sometimes beat Serena and Venus, but on very rare occasion. Recall that Mandlikova did manage to three Grand Slams, but was almost always a step behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
But Clijsters doesn't feel like a stale veteran yet with any future. "I'm still a child," she laughed.
Clijsters is a superior athlete with a huge, ever-improving forehand, lightening speed, a solid two-handed backhand and an underrated serve. She fights hard and, under the tutelage of coach Marc Dehous, has become a better strategist.
Clijsters won Sydney and Indian Wells and has suffered four losses in 2003: her choke against Serena in the semifinals of the Australian Open, where she blew a 5-1 in the third set; a straight loss to Venus in the final of Antwerp; a three-set loss to Ai Sugiyama in the Scottsdale final and a straight-set whipping at the hands of Serena in the NASDAQ final.
Clijsters said she was able to get over the loss to Serena and has plunged ahead, but it isn't always apparent. "It didn't take long at all," she said. "Afterwards you think about and say I missed a big chance. But I just have to look at it in a positive way. I'm still young. I hope I have a few more years of tennis to go. I'm sure if I keep working hard and if I keep playing the tennis that I was in Australia, I'll get those chances again."
Everywhere she goes, Clijsters is asked whether she closing the gap between herself and the Williamses. At Indian Wells, the normally soft-spoken Clijsters snapped at a reporter who asked her about the Williamses, saying, "Why can't we ever talk about me?" The heat is on and now the world will see whether she'll step up or melt.
"I'm just trying to play my best," she said. "Then we will see how close I can get. I feel like I'm definitely playing a lot. I feel like I'm playing a lot more consistently. A few years ago I would lose to Serena, 6-1, 6-1, and 6-2, 6-1 to Venus. It can still happen but it hasn't happened the last times I've played them. I feel I can play with them."
HENIN-HARDENNE MUST PLAY BIGGER
Henin-Hardenne is another case all together. She knocked Serena off on clay last year and stunned her in the Family Circle Cup final, but Venus owns her, taking her out at Wimbledon and in Australia. There are some observers who already believe that Henin-Hardenne will not win even one Grand Slam, because she is too small, takes too big of a swing and, despite her wondrous shotmaking, does not have a money shot to go to.
But this is somewhat specious reasoning, because for her size, the gritty Belgian has an amazing, chock-full of variety backhand, a significant if not spotty forehand, an excellent volley and good firsts serve when she's on. Plus, a big part of being a Top-5 player is commitment, competitiveness, heart and guts. Henin has all of these.
"I'm not afraid of anything," Henin-Hardenne said. "Everyone has a place on the tour and you have to accept that. Serena lost only four matches last year - it's unbelievable. But I have many tools to beat these players. I'm pretty confident and we all have to fight. It's more mental than whether you have the game. They are not unbeatable, We have to accept that they are very tough and strong, but we have to believe we can beat them. We won't beat them every time, but we can sometimes."
Henin-Hardenne knows that if she is to compete against bigger and powerful players, she must add zip to her quick, high-variety attack. "I have a higher level," she said. "Sometimes you focus on bad things like rankings. When I focus on how I want to play and win point after point, I'm much better. I can improve everything because nothing's perfect."
AMELIE SHOWS SERVE AND VOLLEY GAME
The 23-year-old Mauresmo believes that her increasing maturity and newfound commitment to attacking the net could eventually lead her past the Williamses. "My goal is to reach No. 1," said Mauresmo said. "Whether its going to happen in a month, a year, or five years, I don't know. Everyone has a goal and in my tennis life, that's mine."
The eighth-ranked Frenchwoman reached both the Wimbledon and US Open semis last year, a career first. But at the All-England Club, she was wasted by Serena in straight sets. In New York, Venus outfought her in a tough three-setter. But after successfully recovering from off-season knee surgery, the muscular all-courter is as fresh as a daisy, physically and mentally. She's now confident that she won't be staring up at the top forever.
"After I lost to Serena at Wimbledon I was so frustrated that I said I'd only play for number three spot. But now I'm thinking nothing is forever. There's going to be a time that I'm going to improve a little and Serena's going to go down a little. You can't be 100 percent all the time."
Mauresmo has been known to fans since as a virtual unknown she stunned Lindsay at the '99 Australian Open semis. But although she has racked up eight titles and a number of wins over elite players since then, Mauresmo didn't repeat her early Grand Slam success until last year, in part because a back injury, which kept her out of play for decent portions of 2000 and 2001, and part of it had to do with her immaturity.
"I've improved a lot in all the different areas of the game – mentally, physically, and even technically I can do many different things," she said. "I'm happy about that. I've become a better person, more mature and more experienced. I love this life."
Amelie didn't always appreciate how fortunate she was to be near the top and often found herself lamenting the pressures of her job. That changed last fall, when she went down with a knee injury when she was at the top of her game.
"Before I didn't realize that I was lucky to do what I love to do and not to really work and only play tennis," she said. "I didn't really sit down and think about my life. Now I realize it."
Mauresmo is accomplishing what so many women's players say they want to do and never accomplish: transform herself from a baseliner to a net rusher. She knows that it's the only way she's going to get to the top. However, given that she suffering another bout of injuries, even a style change may not be enough.
"Even in 1999 I was talking about it, but it didn't click," she said. "But I made the decision to change last year. I know I'll improve doing this because the more things you can do, the more choices you and the better you are. If you only know how to do one thing and your opponents know how to play you, then what do you do?"
CAN THE US VETS MOUNT A CHARGE?
Former US Open champion Lindsay Davenport is engaged and is secure with her life path. Two-time Australian Open Jennifer Capriati remains single and is trying like hell to rediscover her lethal game. Chanda Rubin is still wondering why she didn't' win the US Open last year.
All these American veterans are faced with a tremendous task – trying to regain the status of being the top Americans from the Williamses.
What must truly getting old for Capriati is title-less streak, which has now reached 15 months. Last year, Capriati failed to defend her Roland Garros title, when Serena punched her out in a nail-biter. She was out-smarted by a net-rushing Mauresmo at both Wimbledon and the US Open, and at the season-ending Home Depot Championship, had Serena on the ropes before losing in three. The pressure unglued her a bit.
"There's higher stakes when you're playing the top players," she said. "No one should go out there with that on their mind. If your thinking all that stuff, who can play tennis? There were a couple of matches last year where there was more pressure and I didn't pull it out."
Capriati said that much of her success lies in her attitude and how free and easy she feels. If she's thinking too much about her results and her status in the tennis universe, she boils over. Capriati, who underwent eye surgery in the off-season to remove sunspots, started the year slowly, losing in the first round of the Australian Open. In February, she fell in the Dubai semis to Henin-Hardenne and in March, she was punched out by Davenport at Indian Wells and by Serena in the Miami final.
"I'm going to take it one at time and not put expectations on myself, she said. "I've got no pressure on me because there are a lot of people ahead of me in the rankings. My expectation is to not to expect too much from myself."
Yet Jennifer was ranked No. 1 and only Venus plays Serena as tough as she does. Capriati wouldn't mind clawing her way back to top of the heap. "I would love a second chance to give it another shot," she said. "I'm even playing better than I was [when I was ranked No. 1]. Everyone's improving around you so automatically it makes you improve. There's not much I have to change and work on, it's just a few things that make all the difference. It's about being confident, sure about your self and feeling loose."
The 26-year-old Davenport will be married to former USC All-American Jon Leach some time this year. But for right now, she focusing squarely on regaining the form that once brought her to No. 1.
Davenport spent the first half of 2002 recovering from knee surgery and while she reached the semis of the US Open and finals of Manhattan Beach, New Haven, Moscow and Zurich, she's still not completely satisfied.
"I'm sort of in between," said Davenport. "I came back stronger than I though I would, but now I'm stuck in a place where I can't seem to get any better. It's a little thing here and there. I'm hitting well, but I'm not staying on my opponents the way I need to. I've lost a lot of consistency on my serve and it was huge weapon of mine. My game revolves around it."
With three Grand Slam titles, a stint at No. 1 and a boatload of money, Davenport could retire tomorrow and look back on a fruitful career. But she isn't quite ready to settle into a house wirh a white picket fence and showed that when she canned Leach's brother, Rick, as her coach, after she was run over by Clijsters at Indian Wells.
"The challenge of getting back to the top is going to be very difficult because of Venus and Serena," she said. "They played above everyone else the last 18 months. All I can do is worry about my own game and my own hurdles."
During the American hardcourt season last summer, Rubin was playing the best tennis of her career. The 5-foot-6 all-courter took out Serena, Dokic and Davenport in succession en route to the Manhattan Beach title and nearly upset Venus in the fourth round of the US Open (a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 loss). But that loss set her back and after a desultory fall and a mediocre start to this year, she didn't step up her game again until Indian Wells and Miami. However, for the third time in a row, Clijsters devastated her in the desert and then Capriati won their contest of big forehands in Miami. But the Louisiana native still believes that she is a Grand Slam champion in the making.
"I have to understand that the flow of playing is not going to be there every single week," she said. "That's' where the challenge is. I feel really good where I am and I can still improve and be a little tougher. I feel like I can challenge for the top. I just have to step up in bigger matches."
THE EASTERN EUROS: DANI AND JELENA
Last October, Slovak teen Daniela Hantuchova showed once again that she's more than just a runway model with a clean backhand down the line. In leading her tiny nation of the Slovak Republic to its first Fed Cup title over Spain, the 19-year-old Hantuchova overcame a boisterous crowd on the Canary islands and tricky veteran Conchita Martinez.
The scantily clad women who knocked GQ readers dead last summer while posing in an Eastern European tennis babe spread proved that not only does she have game, but she has heart, too. The world got a sense of the 5-foot-11 Hantuchova's guts at the '02 US Open, when she overcame a badly sprained wrist and took out Henin-Hardenne in the fourth round. "She's going to be a very good player," said Davenport. "She has a lot of weapons."
In 2001, the smooth all-courter with a brilliantly disguised had neither the mental fortitude nor the shot selection to be able outlast elite players in a hostile environment. But in 2002, she discovered that patience and a warrior's make-up that are necessary components of an elite player. Hantuchova was so locked into winning Fed Cup that she wasn't bothered by that fact that her regular doubles partner, Spain's Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, was crying on court after being harassed by a Spanish fan. "When you are playing against somebody you don't think of her as your partner. I was playing for my country."
It's this killer instinct that has taken Hantuchova into the Top 5. The blue-eyed granddaughter of a nationally-ranked Slovak can aim a frigid, oncourt stare at opponents who don't know how to pull off a sharply angled drop shot or read her very deceptive groundstrokes.
But can Hantuchova is whether she can improve to challenge the Williamses? Serena beat her in straight sets her at both Wimbledon and the US Open and, despite her excellent skills and ability to pick up the balls early, Hantuchova appeared to be physically overmatched. At the outset of 2003, she reached the quarters of the Australian Open, where Venus beat her in straight sets. She was out-smarted by Amanda Coetzer at Indian Wells and last week, was shocked by Ashley Harkleroad at the Family Circle Cup.
But Hantuchova countered that brawn is the not the key to winning matches. "I don't think strength is the most important," said Hantuchova, who did concede that she's trying to add muscle to her thin frame. "What's more important is the way you think. At the moment, the Williamses are No. 1 and 2 because they have so much power. But if improve, I'm optimistic. I should get better physically and mentally I have things to work on. Hopefully I will start to challenge them and give them tougher matches."
Dokic hits the ball so hard and jumps on so early that she can take out almost anyone. She's pushed Venus, but isn't quick enough to hang with her in long rallies, which is why the former No. 4 and two-time Wimbledon semifinalist has hired Steffi Graf's former coach, Heinz Gunhardt. Dokic is making some decent-sized changes to her game, not because she doesn't believe she was a good player before, but because she knows she needs to improve. "I could definitely could hit the ball before, but even players at 27 change their game. Why wouldn't I change mine at 19?"
THE RUSSIANS MAY NOT BE COMING
There are nine good Russian players in the top 70, but none of them have shown the ability to mentally – let alone physically – hang with the Williamses. Not Anastasia Myskina, Elena Bovina, Elena Dementieva, Tatiana Panova, Elena Likhovsteva, Vera Zvonareva, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lina Krasnoroutskaya, Dinara Safina or Anna Kournikova.
"It's not about Russia," Dementieva said. "It's about all the players. Many players have a very good start and then they stop progressing because of injuries or mental problems. The Russian media always say how many good players we have and that we are not ready to win a tournament mentally. They are wrong because we are ready. It just feels like some small things always stop us."
Myskina is too thin and doesn't have enough variety to swing with the sisters; Bovina is powerful enough but is inconsistent and doesn't move well enough; and as powerful as Dementieva is off the ground, her serve is such a wreck now that she is easily broken by mediocre players. Panova and Likhovsteva, are veterans who aren't going anywhere, Kournikova is injured too much and may never regain her top-15 form and Safina is still a baby.
That leaves the two grittiest Russians the tour has seen in some time, the 18-year-old Vera Zvonareva and the 17-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova. Vera sports a more straight-ahead ground attack, while the bullish "Kuzy" has a whiplash forehand. Both are well conditioned, fight hard and are very ambitious. Plus, Vera was the only woman at '02 Roland Garros to take a set off Serena. The jury is still out on whether either one will crack the Top 10, but they have the potential to reach the second weeks of the Slams.
"Each day is different," Vera said "Sometimes the [high-ranked players] just kill me and sometimes I'm killing them."
Even the seemingly invincible Serena, the fastest and strongest player on tour, knows the times could change. She believes she's changing her sport. "Yes, just like [Martina] Navratilova, Steffi and Monica [Seles] did," Serena said. "The girls have improved a lot. I see more girls in the gym now. They're getting stronger, which is great for women's tennis, because you can see tougher matches. The bar's been raised. I've played players I used to have an easy time with, but now they've improved."
Still, the question remains: can anyone dethrone the Compton Comets – the Williamses?