The best -- and then some
Serena and Venus Williams stand atop the women's game -- with few challengers in sight
The Miami Herald
BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN
Wanted: A woman who can beat a Williams sister -- or, at least, take a set off one of tennis' nearly invincible siblings. Must possess power and speed. Must be willing to smash balls from corner to corner and face 110 mph serves. Must not be intimidated. Height a plus. Send resume to Women's Tennis Association.
Is there anyone in the world qualified to answer that ad?
On the eve of the U.S. Open, there is No. 1 Serena Williams and her older sister, No. 2 Venus Williams. And then there is everyone else, wondering how (or if) they can close the gap. It's probably a good thing the three eldest Williams sisters -- Yetunde, 29, Isha, 28, and Lyndrea, 24 -- didn't take up the game. Otherwise, nobody else would get past the quarterfinals.
The Williams sisters have faced each other in the finals of three of the past four Grand Slam tournaments.
Venus won last year's U.S. Open. Serena, who took the French Open and Wimbledon, is favored in this year's Open, which begins Monday, despite tendinitis that flared up in her left knee and a quarterfinal loss to Chanda Rubin earlier this month at Manhattan Beach, Calif. It isn't just that the Williamses are winning, it's how. They have been virtually unchallenged by anyone but each other in recent months. Serena didn't lose a set on the way to the Wimbledon final. Venus lost one.
Amelie Mauresmo, no wisp of a woman, was feeling powerful after knocking off Jennifer Capriati fairly easily in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. She predicted she would give Serena a game. She was pummeled 6-2, 6-1 in 52 minutes, a quarter of the time it takes Serena to braid her hair. Mauresmo said afterward the Williams' domination was ``a little sad for women's tennis.''
Justine Henin, the then-sixth-ranked Belgian, shrugged her shoulders after losing 6-3, 6-2 to Venus in a Wimbledon semifinal. ''What could I do?'' she asked, looking doomed.
No one has a good answer.
''I'm not sure there is a recipe for beating them because I am of the belief that the Williams sisters are a notch above everyone else,'' said Mary Joe Fern?ndez, a retired tennis player and TV commentator. ``When they're at their best, nobody out there can beat them. They have everything. They have speed, power, mental toughness. There are a few players who can challenge them, but none have the whole package. The only way to beat them is if they are having an off day.''
The players with the best chance, Fern?ndez said, are Capriati and Lindsay Davenport, though neither is fully equipped for the challenge. Davenport is coming off a nine-month layoff after knee surgery. Capriati is ranked No. 3, but her game of late is nowhere near the Williamses. She lost in the quarterfinals at Carlsbad, Calif., and Manhattan Beach, and looked out of shape in her loss to Mauresmo at Montreal on Aug. 19.
''Davenport has the power and serve but doesn't move around the court as well, so she has trouble on defense,'' Fern?ndez said. ``Capriati has enough power and speed, but her serve's not there.''
Daniela Hantuchova, the 11th-ranked Slovakian, might be able to beat a Williams sister ''in a couple of years,'' Fern?ndez said.
Former player Pam Shriver believes the Williams sisters are beatable, though she feels they have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack. She said Capriati, Davenport, Mauresmo, Henin and Kim Clijsters have enough power and speed to give the Williamses trouble. A healthy Martina Hingis, though short and more of a finesse player, is also a capable opponent. What they lack, Shriver said, is a killer instinct.
''When Mauresmo said the Williams sisters were bad for tennis, that bothered me,'' Shriver said. 'I want to hear the players ranked three through 12 say, `The Williams sisters have rolled out a challenge, and we have to figure out a way to close the gap.' I want to hear upbeat [talk]. Instead, I hear defeatist talk.
``What those sisters have done isn't boring. I'm fascinated when the bar is raised in a sport. All these players have enough talent to get better, and they should want to get better. Chrissy [Evert] wasn't the same type of athlete as Martina [Navratilova], but she found a way to close the gap. She wasn't intimidated. The gap can be closed. Chrissy did it, and these women can, too.''
Navratilova agrees. Yes, the Williams sisters are better than everyone else, but the rest of women's tennis doesn't have to sit by and watch. And, she said, other players certainly shouldn't criticize the siblings for their success.
''If they had been boys, they would be No. 1 and 2 in the men's rankings because they're just the best and biggest athletes,'' Navratilova told The London Times during Wimbledon. ``People always look for the negative. They said [Bjorn] Borg was unemotional, that [John] McEnroe was a brat, that Evert was a metronome, that I won too easily, that [Steffi] Graf just had a big forehand.
``Now the Williams sisters are criticized for being too strong. All they've done is move the game on. People should admire the virtues and the excellence.
``They have the combination of strength and speed, and that's what the others have to match.''
In the meantime, it's Williams and Williams.
Get used to it.