Article on the Sisters
NEW YORK -- When Serena Williams pulled out of the U.S. Open with a knee injury, the USTA changed gears on the fly. Overnight, they zapped the defending women's champion from their ad campaign, added new No. 1 Kim Clijsters and came up with a fresh catchphrase. WANTED: A New Champion.
It was some fancy footwork but it was hardly truth in advertising. Fact is, Serena is wanted. Badly. A week into the U.S. Open, the talk surrounding the draw regards who's not playing -- Venus, Serena -- rather than who is. Love 'em or hate 'em, the Williams family is the dual straws that are stirring the drink, at least in the women's game. When they're on the shelf, the tournament feels like the Canadian Open with a bigger purse and pricier food.
Even Jennifer Capriati, who suddenly looks to be in prime position to take advantage of the pothole in the draw, remarked that the event "has an asterisk." Capriati, or Justine Henin-Hardenne or Clijsters or Lindsay Davenport or whoever wins the title, will still have won seven matches in two weeks and wil rightfully relish the victory. But this tournament will long be remembered as the Williams-less Open.
Part of the problem is that the Williams sisters -- particularly on asphalt, particularly at the U.S. Open -- are simply the two best players in the world. One or the other has won this title four years running. In fact, it's been three years since a player not named Williams even advanced to the final. Rankings be damned -- "Put out all the rankings you want and that's great for Kim Clijsters but people know Serena's No.1," Ted Robinson told the USA audience today -- they were a good bet to play each other in the final for the sixth time in seven events.
Part of the problem is that the WTA's Generation Next has yet to step up. It's not unlike the fate the ATP faced several years ago when Tommy Haas and Mark Philippoussis and Tommy Enqvist and a half dozen other candidates withered in the spotlight, left to dive for balls in those ubiquitous Pacific Life ads. Daniela Hantuchova was on the fringes of real greatness. She remains a work in progress -- if not regress. Jelena Dokic was a Wimbledon semifinalist at 16. She lost yesterday to Mary Pierce after squandering a 5-1 third-set lead. Mirjana Lucic? She can't even see the top 100. Alexandra Stevenson? Please.
But beyond the tennis, the Williams sisters have that "june say quas," as Serena once put it, that eludes other players. As a certain USA Network cub reporter makes painfully clear, all sizzle and no steak gets old fast. But the Williams sisters' one-two punch of style and substance holds mass (and massive) appeal. Henin-Hardenne is an admirable player but she's not being asked to ring the opening bell for the stock market. Clijsters' demeanor is thoroughly delightful but no one awaits her next fashion statement. Davenport's perspective and sanity are admirable but no one is asking to her read Letterman's top 10 list.
If the Williams' truancy has caused cloud to suspend over the event, there