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Aug 18th, 2002, 04:41 PM
THE NAME OF THE GAME
Williams sisters stand above women's sports world
News Haven Register
By Sean O'Rourke, Register Staff

Flash back to 1994 and take a look at the state of women's tennis. The picture wasn't pretty.

Monica Seles wasn't playing because she was stabbed by a lunatic fan in Hamburg, Germany. The great career of Martina Navratilova was winding down toward retirement. Jennifer Capriati was sidelined by personal problems. Chris Evert was long gone from the tour and Gabriela Sabatini was beginning her descent from the elite ranks.

Women's tennis was the Steffi Graf show. The sponsor-less Women's Tennis Association Tour attempted to start a rivalry is between Graf and No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, but it was apparent that fans' interest was waning.
Sports Illustrated came out with a cover story titled. "Is Tennis Dying?" The answer seemed to be yes, because the men's game was also suffering from the doldrums.

Youthful hope

Despite the predictions of doom, there was hope for tennis in 1994. A spunky 14-year-old from Switzerland named Martina Hingis made her debut in September of that year and showed plenty of potential.

And, from Los Angeles, two sisters named Venus and Serena Williams were drawing attention. The two girls ages 14 and 13 at the time weren't typical teenage tennis girls.

They were black. They came from the inner city. They were also trained by their father, Richard Williams, who was a coach at the youth level but never played pro tennis.

Anne Worcester had just taken over as the chief executive officer of the WTA Tour that year. She knew the game needed a lift and found herself getting caught up in the Williams hype.

"The hype was due to curiosity and anticipation," said Worcester, the Pilot Pen tournament director since 1998. "That was back at the time that Richard Williams was saying 'Don't worry, my daughters are going to be No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.'"

Richard Williams, of course, would prove to be right eight years later. In 2002, both Venus, now 22, and Serena, who will turn 21 next month, have spent time at No. 1 this year. Serena, winner of the two Grand Slams this summer at the French Open and Wimbledon, is the current No. 1

People regarded as tennis experts poked fun at the elder Williams when he made the statements about his daughters.

"They absolutely dismissed him," Worcester Please see Williams, Page D4

recalled. "It's not until now that Richard Williams is getting the credit he was due."

Not only are the Williams sisters the best players in women tennis right now, they are also among the most recognizable female athletes in the world. Sports fans everywhere are anticipating the possibility of the Williams meeting for the third straight time in the final of a Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open.

Their popularity has led to plenty of endorsements and both represent Wilson racquets, Avon, Doublemint Gum and SEGA. Venus endorses Reebok sneakers while Serena is a Puma spokeswoman.

Richard Williams knew his daughters would be winners from the moment he put tennis rackets in their hands.

In an interview with Ebony magazine, Williams recalled the first time he brought Venus on a tennis court.

"I was working with some other kids and had a shopping cart that would hold 550 balls," said Williams, who coached in the neighborhoods of Compton, Calif. "The kids wanted to take breaks but every time they took a break, Venus wanted to keep hitting. Every time I tried to stop her she would cry.

She was 4 years old at the time and she missed a lot of the balls. But she tried to hit every ball."

Said Worcester: "Venus and Serena have transcended tennis and transcended sports. They have brought new fans, both spectators and TV viewers, to tennis. And they've made the sport more entertainment-oriented so the casual tennis fans want to see Venus and Serena play. They want to be able to say I saw Venus Williams play at the Pilot Pen."

Venus will spend the week in New Haven at the Connecticut Tennis Center. On the line will be a 12-match winning streak and three straight Pilot Pen championships.

Where it started

The Williams sisters didn't take the normal route to professional tennis.

They developed their games on cracked courts in East Compton, Calif., a rough part of Los Angeles.

They only played local events in Southern California as juniors instead of traveling around the nation like many aspiring pros.

"There was a tremendous amount of hype because anyone who saw them hit knew they were probably the most powerful players to ever come into the game," Worcester said. "They hadn't played any junior tournaments, they didn't play any satellite tournaments. They just went from 0 to 90 in 20 seconds."

Worcester vividly remembers Venus Williams' pro debut on Halloween night of 1994 in Oakland, Calif., against Shaun Stafford. Stafford came out dressed like Pete Sampras Venus' tennis idol growing up for Halloween.

"Venus was so focused that I don't think she realized that Stafford was dressed as Sampras," Worcester said.

"Venus won that match and I will never forget this absolutely adorable, thin, tall player jumping up and down like a pogo stick with sheer delight. She was so excited that she never sat down during changeovers."

Williams almost pulled a major upset in her second match. She led No. 2 Sanchez-Vicario 6-3, 3-1 before the tour veteran won the next 11 games to take the match. It was Williams' first loss as a tennis player after going 63-0 as a junior.

When asked after the match how the loss compared to other losses, Williams simply stated she didn't know because she had never tasted defeat.

Serena would take a little longer to make a splash. Because of a new age-eligibility ruling that limited appearances of teen-agers, Serena didn't make her debut until October 1997 at the age of 16.

She lost her debut in Moscow, but a month later made headlines when she upset No. 7 Mary Pierce and No. 4 Monica Seles in the Ameritech Cup in Chicago. Serena was ranked No. 304 at the time and became the lowest-ranked player to ever knock off two top 10 players at the same tournament.

A new era

With the rise of the Williams sisters, Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Anna Kournikova, plus the return of Seles and Capriati, the WTA Tour became a hot commodity. Many believe its popularity has surpassed the men's pro tennis tour.

Men's tennis died in New Haven in 1998 but women's tennis was about to rise. At first, however, there was a question as to whether it would survive.

Worcester recalled meeting with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., Richard Levin, the president of Yale, and Ron Shaw, CEO of Pilot Pen Corp., who were looking for answers following the final men's event.

"I said to them, 'You guys, women's tennis is the hottest property in women's sports right now.' It was more attractive than ever before. There couldn't have been a better time to bring in the tournament," Worcester said.

Hingis and Davenport were dominating the sport in the late 1990s. But the Williams sisters weren't far behind and were ready to put it all together as the two best players in the world as the clock struck 12 on the new millennium.

Break on through

Serena Williams would beat her older sister to the first Grand Slam title when she captivated the nation by winning the 1999 U.S. Open.

But Venus' career reached new heights in the summer of 2000, putting her into the role of not only the world's best tennis player but elevating her to the top female in all of sports.

Venus won her first Grand Slam at Wimbledon, knocking off her sister in the semifinals, and then proceeded to win consecutive tournaments in Stanford, San Diego and New Haven heading into the U.S.

Open. Hingis was up 5-3 in the third set and had two match points in the semifinals when Venus stormed back to win and then beat Davenport in the final.

"It's impossible to beat Venus the way she plays at times," Serena said. "Even in practice, I'm just fighting to get the ball back sometimes."

Venus repeated as Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion in 2001 and won her third straight title at the Pilot Pen. In the Open final, Venus beat her sister.

"Venus just raised the power game to another level," said Davenport, who also thrives on a power game. "She is also so athletic and quick on the court."

Serena, , meanwhile, didn't win a Grand Slam in 2000 and 2001. But 2002 has turned out to be her year so far with Grand Slam titles at the French Open and Wimbledon, both with victories over Venus in title matches that have become known as "Sister Slams."

Who's no. 1?

Serena has replaced her older sister as No. 1 in the world. Many people believe that this was the plan of Richard Williams, but both sisters dispute the notion that it was set up for Serena to win in the finals of both Grand Slams this season.

Venus, in fact, is not happy with being No. 2 to her younger sister.

"I'm here to be on top," Venus said. "I'm not trying to linger around No. 2. But I've done my best this year and I don't think I could have done anymore."

The U.S. Open figures to settle who is No. 1 at the end of the year between the sisters. The rivalry between the sisters seems to have been fueled by the battle for No. 1.

"It's not fun to lose, no matter who you lose to," Venus said. "It's not something that I'm going to get used to."

Can they be beat?

Are the Williams sisters beatable? It's a topic that has been disputed plenty this summer.

Justine Henin, ranked No. 6 in the world, feels the answer is yes. Henin has been close to beating Venus in final matches twice this season, at Antwerp, Belgium, and Amelia Island, Fla., twice losing in the third set. At Amelia Island, Henin led Venus 6-2, 4-0 before Williams rallied to win.

"She is so mentally strong," Henin said. "You have to be 100 percent to beat both Venus and Serena."

But Henin said she is not intimidated by the Williams sisters' power game. The key to pulling the upset is playing a finesse game.

"You can't hit the ball hard with either of them," Henin said. "For me, I have to use my game. I have to go to the net. They are great players, for sure, but I'm not afraid to play them. You can't be afraid to play them when you want to be the best.

Dominance at the top

When Graf was dominating tennis in the mid-1990s, it was not good for the game. Interest tends to wane when one person or one team always dominates in sports.

Women's tennis has prospered for the past five years, but there's always the fear that interest could diminish if the Williams sisters continue to dominate.

"They are the champions and they are great players," Henin said. "They are the best but people like myself, Davenport, Seles and Capriati have to change that. We have to start beating them."

Worcester agrees with Henin's assessment that the onus is on the world's other top players to improve enough to beat the Williams sisters.

"It's good that Hingis and Davenport have come back (from injury)," Worcester said. "It's not good for tennis to have two players that always dominate."

But there's no doubt that the game is better off now than it was in 1994. A major reason is the emergence and dominance of Venus and Serena Williams.