L.A. needs Williams in field
Published October 5, 2003
Venus Williams has entered the Advanta Championships in Philadelphia (Oct. 27-Nov. 2) and everyone involved in selling women's tennis is hoping she isn't just covering herself if she decides to play, but will, in fact, be there and will play the season-ending WTA Championships the next week.
Nothing is certain right now with the Williams sisters until the first day of the tournament. Venus is back on the practice court after a long bout with the abdominal injury that doomed her effort in the Wimbledon final. But the family is still coping with the shooting death of the eldest sister.
As for younger sister Serena, the Wimbledon champion who is recovering from knee surgery: She looks doubtful to play again this season.
If the WTA Championships are to avoid a second straight attendance disaster at Staples Center in Los Angeles, it has to have at least one of the Williams sisters in the eight-women lineup.
The two Belgians, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, can talk all they want about how competitive they've made women's tennis at the highest level, and no one would dispute that. But they're not enough by themselves, even at No. 1 and No. 2, to pull in more than the few thousand Staples entertained a year ago.
The tour has whittled the size of the championships from 16 to the best eight this year, and that was smart. There really are only a handful of players capable of winning a major title in women's tennis, and I'm no longer counting Amelie Mauresmo, who has had a very disappointing year.
On balance and looking at women's tennis on an international level, Henin-Hardenne, an anamoly at 5 feet 5 and 130 pounds, has probably been the best story this season. She won two Grand Slams (French Open and U.S. Open) with wins over Clijsters, who is physically bigger (who isn't?) and hits bigger.
But Henin-Hardenne understands the game better, has more variety in her shots, plays better defense and that's why she's No. 1.
Clijsters once dominated this matchup and she's a better player than she was a year ago. But confidence goes a long way in individual sports like golf and tennis.
"I think it's very hard to tell why it changed the last few months," Henin-Hardenne said. "I know the work I did, the physical work helped me be prepared mentally. I was just feeling comfortable on the court against Kim. But it's hard to tell when or why it changed.'
In some ways she reminds you of Lleyton Hewitt on the men's tour. Both smaller players. Both somewhat reclusive on the tour. Both the targets of criticism -- Hewitt because of his running battles with reporters and Henin-Hardenne because of the silly criticism some people aimed at her over the controversial moments in her French Open win over Serena.
And the best irony: Clijsters is romantically involved with Hewitt and is about the most open and upbeat player on either tour.
Like Hewitt, Henin-Hardenne realizes she has to keep evolving. The Williams sisters could stand still with the talent they have now and not be challenged for a long time. Not the little Belgian.
"I'll have to go a little bit to the net, for sure," she says. "Even if I have more power than last year, I'm not going to beat them on the fast surfaces. In the long run, I totally know that. It's just that I'm not afraid anymore of the rally. But I know that if I want to put a lot of pressure on them, I have to get to the net, be a little more aggressive.
"And I know my serve is the key in my game. I think in 2004 that's what I'm looking for. My serve is going to be more consistent and it's going to help me win easier points.'
Mustering a comeback
It's difficult to imagine 1995 French Open champion Thomas Muster at 53 pounds over his playing weight and, when he finally did something about it, he got rid of it in his usual maniacal way.
The weight gain started shortly after he retired in 1999 and moved to Australia to get away from the harsh Austrian winters and live the good life.
"I could do what I wanted to do. I hung out with friends and, you sit together, you drink a few beers and you smoke. I'm not saying smoking and drinking is a great thing to do, but it's something you do when you are hanging out and relaxing and that's what I did. It wasn't excessive, but after doing it year-in and year-out, I put on weight. " he said.
It took a year, but he looks once again like the man who won 34 consecutive clay-court matches in '95, winning consecutive titles at Estoril, Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Rome before taking the field apart at the French for his only Grand Slam title.
I remember Muster playing Key Biscayne at the time. He was relentless and his aggressiveness and stamina on court, especially on hot days, intimidated a number of players. While waiting for his match to start at the old Lipton, he was in the narrow passageway inside the stadium, throwing a medicine wall against the cinder block wall and catching it. Players would pass him and they weren't smiling.
Muster is now playing the Delta Masters Tour, which is exclusively in Europe. The Muster grunt is back and so is the desire to play.
Charles Bricker's tennis column appears Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am not sure they need them there to avoid a disaster. It did not help last year. The WTA is just inept. However, especially given how little they have been able to play this year, it would help tremendously to have them there. I think a lot of fans might come just to show their support for the sisters.