Back On Top Down Under
Back On Top Down Under
By Andre Christopher
It has been five years since the Williams sisters first played each other as professionals. That encounter, in the second round of the Australian Open, only four months after Venus Williams reached the final in her Grand Slam tournament debut at the 1997 U.S. Open, generated unprecedented attention.
The apparent novelty of two sisters – these sisters, at least – meeting in a Grand Slam tournament had everyone talking for days – even men’s players who usually don’t give women’s tennis much thought. “It’s got to be an awful feeling (to play a sibling),” Pete Sampras said.
Venus Williams won that 1998 match, 7-6 , 6-1, in 90 minutes, generating headlines such as “It’s Venus Who Takes Care of Family Matter” (Los Angeles Times), “Venus Not Flashy in Smashing Sis” (The [Memphis] Commercial Appeal) and “In Williams vs. Williams, Big Sister Moves Ahead” (The New York Times).
Those were the days of beads and braces and girls having fun. “After the match,” Venus said to the media, “I told her, ‘Serena, I’m sorry I had to take you out. I didn’t want to, but I had to do it.’” Everyone ate it up.
The sisters had pretty good games, though probably a bit heavy on the hype. But more than that, they knew how to work a room, filling reporters’ notebooks with the one-liners that jump off a news page just as easily as they resonate during an eight-minute television sports report. “What you saw was something for the future,” Serena said of the shared bow she and Venus gave the Aussie Open crowd.
Five years later, the hype surrounding the Williams sisters has changed. They don’t claim to be the best, and their father doesn’t jump around touting it…anymore. The sisters simply are the best. The champion and runner-up trophies they have taken home from the last three Grand Slam tournaments, like newlyweds collecting “His and Her” towels, are the proof.
Within the phenomenon of the Slammin’ Sisters is Serena winning the last three majors and poised to win a fourth consecutive Grand Slam tournament title for a “Serena Slam.” That she could achieve such a feat at the very tournament where she made her Grand Slam debut five years ago sets up the Hollywood ending fitting for this part-time actress. Only she’s not thinking of just a “Serena Slam.” Serena Williams has a full, non-asterisked tennis Grand Slam on her 2003 “to do” list.
“The four, could be (done),” she says. “When I’m playing bad, I’m causing trouble. So I think if I’m playing decent, I’ll be doing a lot better.”
Serena’s quest to join the company of Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Margaret Court as the only women to win four consecutive Grand Slam tournament singles titles in the Open Era – along with the phenomenon of both Williams sisters reaching the final of a fourth consecutive Grand Slam tournament – is, perhaps, the primary point of interest heading into the Australian Open, Jan. 13-26 at Melbourne Park. But plenty more is at stake.
Lleyton Hewitt is attempting to become the first Australian in 15 years to win his home Grand Slam event. His strong finish to 2002 makes him a clear favorite, as long as he is healthy. He was also among the favorites for the 2002 Australian Open, but, weakened by chicken pox, he didn’t survive the first round.
Andre Agassi, as two-time defending champion, was another men’s favorite before the 2002 event. But he never even got on court at Melbourne Park, falling victim to a wrist injury the week before the tournament. The direction of his career at this point is uncertain in the aftermath of a disappointing finish to 2002 in Tennis Masters Cup. Was that Agassi being bested by better players on the day in Shanghai, or is another – and possibly last – Agassi swoon nearing?
With injuries and upsets decimating the field in 2002, Marat Safin found himself in perfect position to win a Grand Slam singles title to accompany his trophy from the 2000 U.S. Open. He blew that chance against Thomas Johansson (who might not even be fit to defend his title), but Safin, more than most, seems destined to win a few more major titles before his career is done.
Jennifer Capriati can bash with the Williams sisters as well as anyone, and she is two-time defending champion. But battling well is not the same as winning. Case in point, she has not won a tournament since the 2002 Australian Open.
Kim Clijsters defeated Serena Williams in the final of the year-end championships, which automatically makes her a consideration as an Australian Open title contender. The beauty there would be in having Clijsters take the women’s title and boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt the men’s. It would be like the two of them winning their respective season-ending championships all over again, with the bonus for them of being able to celebrate together.
There is still the matter of what’s going on with the Australian Open itself. The extreme heat policy has been revised, and while that might reduce the horrifying possibility of a player suffering heat exhaustion or worse, it begs the question of whether everyone might be better off if the tournament were held a bit later. That is a possibility, by the way, that Australian Open Chief Executive Paul McNamee is very open to exploring. The tournament certainly has previously held different dates on the calendar. Throughout most of the ’70s, it was a December tournament. When Ken Rosewall won his second Australian singles title in 1971 – 16 years after his first – the tournament was played in March.
“I have to admit that in an ideal world, we would be later,” McNamee says. “It would be an investment in the quality of the tennis – in the brand of the tennis – if it was later because the players would be further removed from the off-season. Now that’s the ideal world. It may help create a longer off-season, which would be another good thing for the sport.
“The practical issues, though, are the stakeholders that are in the later timeframe and the advantages we have of being in our summer and school holidays and when our TV networks have space.”
This is where the bigwigs in the sport have to step forward. While the Australian Open might recognize the advantages of a later date and be open to moving back in the calendar, such a shift would have a ripple effect akin to the bee in Brazil that causes a tidal wave in the Pacific. The Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo would have to change dates. The first round of Davis Cup would have to move to a later date. Who wants to make the call to that unfortunate event that just has to go altogether?
Just how much later could the Australian Open be held?
“At the end of the day,” McNamee says, “The Slams are at the end of a legitimate lead-in season. As the four peaks in the sport, I believe that’s their role, and we don’t quite deliver on that.”
Everything else about the Australian Open is enviable. In 2002, the tournament set a Grand Slam attendance record that even the U.S. Open (touted as the largest-attended annual sporting event in the world) can’t match. Day Two of the event attracted 42,915 fans, the largest single-session attendance anywhere in tennis. Since 1999, the tournament’s gross economic benefit to the state of Victoria has increased 37 percent to $189 million.
This year marks the beginning of organizers’ efforts to market the Australian Open as the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific. What this means is organizers want the Australian Open to be more than a tournament that all Aussie tennis players aspire to win, but also the event most cherished by players from Japan, India, China…quite simply, throughout Asia. Tennis Australia, which owns the Australian Open the way the United States Tennis Association owns the U.S. Open, also wants to be a “good citizen” to the region, helping the sport to grow throughout Asia.
The business side of such marketing creates avenues for more sponsor revenue. Far more dollars are available on the Asian continent than in Australia. Korean car manufacturer Kia is in its second year as a major tournament sponsor.
This is hardly the same tournament that little more than 20 years ago had Slam status, but apparently slim appeal to the top players. Even going back 30 years, the tournament was, in McNamee’s words, “propped up by the strength of the Australian players.” Ilie Nastase was ranked in the Top 10 from 1970 through 1977, including being year-end No. 1 in 1973. His only time playing the Australian Open was in 1981, when he was well past his prime. The No. 1 player then, John McEnroe, skipped the tournament – as did the rest of the men’s Top 5.
Participation among the top women wasn’t much better. Chris Evert only played the tournament once from the start of her career in 1971 through 1980. Tracy Austin played the Australian Open only twice, including a forgettable comeback attempt in 1994. From the dawn of the Open Era in mid-1968 through 1981, Billie Jean King played the Australian Open once.
Granted, some of the top players will be missing from this year’s event, among them Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo, Greg Rusedski and Pete Sampras. A handful of others are questionable. One could argue that some of those players would be playing if the Australian Open were later in the year, but that speaks to the need for an off-season that allows recuperation from injury, not the worthiness of the event.
Serena Williams’ journey to the Australian Open to go for a fourth consecutive Grand Slam tournament singles title, indeed, represents progress.
…though maybe not for about 123 other women in the draw.
Serena will have been in Australia for the full two-week lead-up to the Australian Open by the time the tournament begins. She is playing Hopman Cup in Perth for the first time, pairing with James Blake in the mixed team event. This assures her of three fairly tough singles matches. For a Grand Slam tournament without adequate lead time, she is making the most of what’s available.
In the end, Clijsters defeating Serena in the final of the year-end championships might have done no more than “awaken the sleeping giant.”
“I like that I didn’t win (the year-end championships),” Serena says, “because I’m so motivated right now to win the Australian Open. It’s like last year when I didn’t play the Australian. I got super motivated. I told myself I was going to win the French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open. Sometimes for me, I need to take a step back and say, ‘Keep going ahead and ahead.’”