Venus & Serena, now mere mortals, still Advanta's big draw
By Dana Pennett O'Neil
Two years ago, they were the bane of women’s tennis.
Venus and Serena Williams were too good. They collected plates like a bride gone wild, stuffing their trophy cases with championship paraphernalia.
The biggest question wasn’t whether a Williams sister would win a title, but what she would be wearing when she did.
Fans moaned and groaned that their domination had robbed the game of its excitement, boiled down an international game into simple sibling rivalry.
Now those same people are hyperventilating, panicked that the Williams sisters are over.
Done in by a season of injuries last year, neither has looked like her former self. Serena, the woman who only 2 years ago won four straight Grand Slam titles, has dipped to No. 9. And Venus, owner of back-to-back Wimbledon crowns, has fallen to No. 10. They are not playing Philadelphia simply because they want to. They have to. Neither has enough points yet to qualify for the season-ending WTA Tour Championships in Los Angeles the following week.
The two still have star power. They, not the higher-ranked Anastasia Myskina or even Wimbledon champ and heartthrob Maria Sharapova, will be the big attraction when the Advanta Championships begin at Villanova on Monday.
But the champion is no longer a foregone conclusion.
“I think it’s a combination of not playing and all of a sudden other players raising their levels,” said former player Mary Joe Fernandez, who will serve as the analyst on the Channel 10 broadcast of the singles final next weekend.
“When you’re out of the game for a while, you lose that fear factor and you lose your confidence. When they used to step on the court, there was no doubt. Now you see them hesitate.”
Critics complain the sisters have forgotten their tennis roots and have been blindsided by stardom. Serena has spent a great deal of time developing her acting career and these days is as likely to appear in the pages of People as in the pages of Tennis.
Venus, in the meantime, has been working on her fashion line.
“Everybody is different,” Fernandez said. “Each individual knows what helps them. It’s easy to say if they lose they’ve done too much outside tennis, but those decision are very personal.”
While the Williams sisters have been tumbling, the Russians have been rising.
Before this season, no Russian woman had ever won a Grand Slam championship. This year three of the four big pieces of hardware went to Russians: Myskina won the French Open, Sharapova took Wimbledon and Svetlana Kuznetsova claimed the U.S. Open crown.
The women’s tennis rankings, once so American-centric, now read like a Moscow phonebook. Although Lindsay Davenport currently holds the No. 1 ranking, she is being chased by Russians. Myskina is No. 3, Elena Dementieva No. 4, Kuznetsova No. 5, Sharapova No. 7, Vera Zvonareva No. 12 and Nadia Petrova No. 13.
In the most delicious twist of irony, some are partly crediting a woman who never won a tennis tournament for the Russian revolution.
Anna Kournikova spent her entire career insisting she was a tennis player trapped inside a model’s body and defending her fame despite her vacant trophy case.
Now that she’s retired, folks are realizing maybe that aside from attracting the fraternity demographic, she did have an impact on the game.
“I agree with that,” Fernandez said. “She was in the top 10. She was in every magazine, every newspaper. Women saw what she was doing.”
That said, the cold, hard truth is the women’s game still needs its first-name-only group desperately — Jennifer and Lindsay, and, even more, Serena and Venus.
And while the latter two might be struggling, count them out at your own risk.
“Serena and Venus, whenever you have a tournament, they’re the faces everyone knows and everyone wants to see,” Fernandez said. “And if they play their best, they’re still pretty tough to beat.”