by Steve Flink
Once upon a time, not that long ago, two African American sisters essentially controlled the climate in the world of women’s tennis. They displayed an unparalleled ferocity as competitors, speed and athleticism no one could surpass, overwhelming power off the ground, and awesome explosiveness on serve. Serena and Venus Williams carried the game on their shoulders for quite some time, clashing over and over again in the finals of major events.
From the time they met in the championship match at the 2001 U.S. Open up through Wimbledon two years later, they took each other on in six of the eight Grand Slam tournament finals, with the more gifted Serena prevailing in the last five of those head-to-head meetings. When Serena recorded her so-called “Serena Slam” by collecting four majors in a row from Roland Garros 2002 through Melbourne 2003, Venus was her victim in all of those finals. They were the dominant forces in the sport, the women who set the pace and agenda, highly charged players who seldom lost when it mattered.
Times have changed. To be sure, the sisters Williams remain formidable, capable at any given time of rising to almost ineffable heights. As was the case under similar circumstances at Melbourne in 2005, Serena made a stupendous run at the start of 2007 and unfathomably captured the Australian Open for her eighth career Grand Slam title. And Venus, rewriting another script from her surprise triumph at the All England Club in 2005, was the unexpected victor at Wimbledon this year, claiming her sixth major singles crown in the process. When they are fully motivated and free of pain and distractions, Serena and Venus can still play the game with crackling intensity and immense conviction.
But too often in the past four years, either Serena or Venus has been hurt or absent. Serena, especially, was exasperatingly indifferent at times, finishing 2005 outside the top ten in the world, descending to No. 95 after being idle for so much of the 2006 season with a knee injury. Venus, hindered by wrist and elbow ailments, concluded 2006 at No. 48 on the WTA computer. It seemed entirely possible that these two proud competitors had privately decided that it didn’t really matter anymore, that they had done enough, and had earned the right to pursue other interests.
Given that background, it has been reassuring to see how much tennis the Williams sisters have been playing in recent weeks. They are leaving little doubt about their intentions for next year with their current level of commitment. Consider how active they have been in recent weeks, and how much they have helped the Sony-Ericsson WTA Tour with the constancy of their appearances. Both women had come off losses to Justine Henin at the U.S. Open, with Serena falling against the Belgian in the quarterfinals and Venus bowing to the world No. 1 a round later.
It would not have surprised me if Serena and Venus had elected to almost write the autumn off but that has not been the case at all. Venus took a few weeks off after New York but then went on a three week swing through Seoul, Tokyo and Bangkok. In that span, her consistency was admirable. Venus won in Seoul, ousting Maria Kirilenko in a tough, three set final. She nearly won in Japan, holding match points before losing a three set final against Virginie Razzano. And then she was beaten in the semifinals of Bangkok by the Italian Flavia Pennetta, whom she had beaten convincingly in Seoul.
The bottom line is that Venus performed consistently across that demanding three week stretch, and undoubtedly benefitted considerably from playing 14 matches in that period. Perhaps she was slightly worn down by the time she lost to Pennetta, but the fact remains that she was out there pushing herself hard and making it to the latter stages of all three tournaments. Good for her. Serena picked herself up impressively as well. Returning to the WTA Tour a week later than Venus, Serena got back to business in Stuttgart, losing there in the quarterfinals to world No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova. This past week, she toppled Nicole Vaidisova and then avenged her loss to Kuznetsova before losing for the first time in five career appointments against Elena Dementieva in the final of Moscow.
The loss to Dementieva was bizarre in some ways. Serena went down 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. For her to lose a pair of 6-1 sets indoors against anyone is difficult to comprehend. Not only does Serena have one of the best serves in the women’s game, but Dementieva always struggles with her delivery and is renowned for double faulting her way out of matches. Not so on this occasion. Dementieva resides in Moscow and fed off the heartfelt support of her hometown fans, demonstrating during this contest that her ground strokes are right up there among the best in the game. Nevertheless, Serena was frequently discombobulated in that final, mistiming her ground strokes, giving away too many points in the last two sets.
Be that as it may, Serena really needed to get back to work after missing the entire hard court season leading up to the U.S. Open with a thumb injury. Playing seven matches over the past fortnight was just what the doctor would have ordered. She would surely have preferred to come away with at least one title during those two tournament appearances, but the effort was far from disastrous and her goal should be to keep competing as often as possible and to thus start 2008 in much better shape. Serena is in Zurich this week, where she will have the chance to make amends for her failure in Moscow. Serena, who stands now at No. 5 in the race for the 2007 season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Madrid, has qualified for that prestigious event. Venus, who is at No. 7 in the race, should make it as well.
I hope that Venus does join Serena in Madrid, that both women perform well there, and then give 2008 everything they have. Venus is 27 now and Serena is 26. They will never be as dominant as they once were, but if they keep competing hard and regularly, if they make up their minds that the only way to do themselves justice is to be devoted entirely to tennis for the next couple of years, then they will be back where they belong in the thick of things. If that scenario unfolds, not only will Serena and Venus Williams triumph, but so will the sport of tennis.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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