Williamses among many tough cookies
By Cindy Shmerler, Globe Correspondent | August 25, 2008
NEW YORK - Venus and Serena Williams burst into the room like a tornado, breathless and talking in staccato sentences. But the sisters weren't yammering about the US Open, which begins today, or about the No. 1 ranking in women's tennis - currently held by Serbia's Ana Ivanovic but coveted by both of them - or about the Beijing Olympics, where they took the gold medal in doubles, or even about Hurricane Fay, which forced them to make a brief pre-Open rest stop in California rather than their hometown of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Instead, what the sisters wanted to talk about was far more basic than the storm front at Flushing Meadows. In this case it was cookies, specifically a sandwich cookie promotion. It had something to do with twisting, dunking, and licking them faster than a football-playing sibling combo named Manning. With the Williams family, tennis is always an afterthought.
"We were just on a whirlwind with the Olympics," said Venus, who defeated her younger sister to win her fifth Wimbledon last month but, by the unfortunate luck of the draw, could meet her in the quarterfinals here. "Obviously, we had an unbelievable summer. We're just trying to make sure that one of us ends the summer off with a bang. That's where it is now."
"I'm definitely not into predicting," said the fourth-seeded Serena, when asked if two Serbs, top-seeded Ivanovic and second-seeded Jelena Jankovic, will face off in the final. "I can only say that we've been working hard and hopefully our hard work will pay off."
Quipped Venus, "I'm all about my results and wish everyone the best of luck. But I'm really down with me winning this tournament."
With no defending champion on the women's side - Justine Henin retired unexpectedly this past June - the winner of the final major of the year is anybody's guess. Ivanovic, the French Open champ, and Jankovic have traded the No. 1 ranking, with Svetlana Kuznetsova riding closely on their heels. (Ivanovic was forced to pull out of the Olympics because of a thumb injury, which clouds her US Open future.)
Maria Sharapova, who captured the Australian Open in January and won the US Open two years ago, again has struggled with a tender shoulder, while part-time player and fulltime mom Lindsay Davenport withdrew from Wimbledon and the Olympics on wounded knee.
The hottest player in the women's game right now may well be a slimmed-down Dinara Safina, younger sister of the mercurial 2000 US Open men's champ Marat Safin. Safina has won 16 of her last 17 matches, her only loss in the final of the Olympics to Dementieva. She also reached the final of the French Open and captured the summer US Open Series, representing the best results on the North American summer hard-court circuit. Should Safina also capture the US Open, she would earn $2.5 million, the largest payout in tennis.
"It's just coming too fast," said the sixth-seeded Safina, who could meet Ivanovic in the quarterfinals and one of the Williamses in the semis. "I'm not used to it . . . I still cannot really take a breather and realize what's going on. I'm coming in and in a dreaming situation right now."
This time last year, Roger Federer was residing in tennis dreamland. The 27-year-old Swiss star came into the 2007 US Open as the three-time defending champ and having reached the final of all three majors, winning at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and falling to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. By the time he had won his fourth consecutive US Open there was talk that he would hold the No. 1 world ranking in perpetuity.
But Federer's dream has turned to dross and Nadal is no longer simply the King of Clay, but of the entire tennis universe. So far this year, the 22-year-old Spaniard has won his fourth straight French Open, beating Federer in the final, his first Wimbledon (where he defeated Federer, 9-7, in the fifth set in what is thought by many to be the greatest Wimbledon final in history), and the gold medal at the Olympics. Last Monday, he officially overtook Federer atop the world rankings.
"The pressure is the same," said Nadal, who has never gone past the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows but whose path to the final this year is far less cluttered than Federer's, especially with last year's runner-up, third-seeded Novak Djokovic, in the same half of the draw as Federer. "When you want to win, the goal is still the same and the pressure is still the same. The goal is still continuing to improve my tennis and continuing to play a very good tournament. That's the only goal."
"It will be interesting to see how he handles [being the top seed]," said Federer, who is in the same half of the draw as Russian Nikolay Davydenko, American Andy Roddick (who skipped the Olympics in hopes of topping the field here instead), and Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, the Olympic silver medalist. "For five years I was expected to win every tournament I entered. Maybe now it changes a little bit. Rafa will now feel what I had to feel for a very long time."
Could there be storm clouds brewing overhead or is it simply the winds of change blowing fiercely through the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center?