SPORTS OF THE TIMES
Serena Rules, and the Rest Have a Crisis of Confidence
By SELENA ROBERTS
SERENA WILLIAMS doesn't live in a split-level house with an AstroTurf yard and a housekeeper named Alice, but she is the icon who wins every contest she enters, who is groovier than a record album and makes all the fashion statements for her peer group.
Serena Williams doesn't share a shag-carpet bedroom with her sisters or a joint bathroom with three brothers, but she is the famous sibling who has the most trophies, who leaves all the football players smitten and is universally adored by the camera.
She is not Marcia, Marcia, Marcia, but simply Serena, the No. 1 player on a women's tour filled with too many Jan Bradys. Admiring and envious all at once, there is a sense of hopelessness in their ability to compete with Serena and an inferiority complex that has defeated their ambitions.
We'll never be good enough. That's the message slipping from the lips of everyone from Jennifer Capriati to Lindsay Davenport, from Kim Clijsters to even Venus Williams when they assess the domination of Serena during her run of four major titles in a row.
Instead of boldly aiming at Serena's top perch, they've become the court queens of conciliation. Gathered last week at Indian Wells, Calif., — where no Williams may ever roam again after being mercilessly jeered when Venus forfeited a semifinal with her little sister three years ago — Serena's opponents sounded content with life as a bridesmaid.
"You know, I'd like to say if I'm playing my best that I'll be winning everything," Capriati said. "But, you know, I can't say that nowadays."
Why not? Over the past year, Serena has routinely disassembled Capriati's confidence in one big match after another. At times last season, the frustration sent Capriati plunging into the joyless dark funk of her teen years. But even the perkiest players on tour — take the carbonated Clijsters, for one — fall flat when it comes to dreaming of No. 1.
"I think for the players, especially for the top players, it doesn't really matter if they're No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 — except for Serena," Clijsters said. "I think she loves to be No. 1. For the other players, I don't think they really worry about whether they're No. 5, 6, 7 or 8."
The art of lowering expectations. Few are better at it than Davenport, the tour's lovable lug. "The challenge of getting back to the top is going to be made very difficult because there's not only Serena, there's Venus, as well," Davenport said. "You know, there's not much you can do."
Such resignation. Even Venus exudes a level of concession when it comes to Serena's ownership of the tour. In each of the last four major finals, Venus has been as helpless as anyone against Serena.
The results have left Venus withdrawn, looking on the verge of a career change. If Serena's attention span for tennis doesn't snap soon, Venus could happily vanish into her interior design business in a couple of seasons.
This is the Mope Tour, and it's devastating for tennis. While Serena is an ideal No. 1 — a sexy swimsuit success for Sports Illustrated with talent in every curve (Note to Anna Kournikova: You've been replaced in magazine covers per minute) — there has to be someone out there brave enough to at least voice a plan to topple her.
Where is the feistiness, the riveting rancor? Well, Martina Hingis is brushing horse manes in Switzerland. Not long ago, she was the unabashed foil of the Williams sisters, even as she started to become another dunk-tank target against their power. Now, she is gone.
There is no doubting the seriousness of her ankle injuries — Hingis didn't let surgeons wield their scalpels for show — but there is a feeling that she would be discussing a comeback if she thought she had a chance. Hingis was an expert at playing the arrogant No. 1, but lost at how to handle the humbling onset of also-ran status.
If the tour hangdogs would just look up, they would see how Serena is offering them a primer on self-affirmation, helpful hints on how to beat her. On even her worst days, down a set or just a service break, she still believes in herself. It's not the serve or foot speed that separates Serena, it's an attitude.
Will Serena win every match this year? Probably not, but as Serena said on Friday, she always sets her goals "ridiculously high" to see how close she comes to achieving them.
• It's the right philosophy. If only someone else would adopt it. Similar to Tiger Woods, Serena needs an opponent confident enough to challenge her greatness, to be more like Serena than Serena herself.
If there is to be a Serena interruptus, it will take a player ready to make the leap in self-esteem. Just as Serena did one year ago. This week, the top women will descend on Key Biscayne, Fla., where Serena separated herself from Venus with a victory over awkwardness.
"It's O.K. to do well against your sister," Serena said. "That was a big point I was able to accept. Finally, I was able to do what I knew I could."
Unabashed ambition, that's why Serena has it all right now. That's why she is the Marcia on a tour of Jan Bradys.