Friday, December 30, 2005

2006 Intriguing Question #4

Forget all the stories about the age 30-or-pushing-it veterans that currently populate the WTA theatre, the real longest-running dramatic presentation on tour is the one starring the Williams sisters.

This multi-Act play has been on the receiving end of all sorts of deserving awards over the years, and been on the equally deserving end of some poison-penned reviews, as well. But, through it all, the performances of Ms. Venus & Serena have never been boring or, worse yet, ordinary and inconsequential.

The two have taken turns in the lead role, and often shared both the spotlight and the applause (if not the trophies). But as we begin what is effectively the tenth year of the "Williams Family Production," one wonders how many more Acts this story could possibly have left.


We've all been witness to a truly wild ride. The story of the Williams sisters has never, and likely never will come close to being duplicated on such a grand stage as that which the WTA tour has provided since Venus Williams made her slam debut in 1997, and Serena followed a year later in 1998. Seriously, think about all the twists and turns that've taken place. Why, they're worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film, minus any kung-fu action or hypodermic needles to the heart, of course (so far, at least... who knows, Serena's future screen ambitions could end up including one, if not both, at some point).

We've seen Venus rise, then Serena surpass her by being the first sister to claim a grand slam crown ('99 U.S.). We've seen the two of them hold the Top 2 positions in the rankings (2002), and engage in what amounted to a prolonged "Williams Family Invitational" (also known as four consecutive grand slams, and six of the seven slams in which both sisters were entered from 2002-03). Then, as Venus seemed to recede from view (that'll happen to a gal when she loses five straight slam finals to her little sister), Serena literally soared, pulling off a "Serena Slam" and taking five-of-six slam titles over the course of two seasons. She literally had no equal.

Then, inexplicably, Serena lost her focus and ultimately joined Venus on the sidelines, literally (due to injuries), as well as figuratively (18 months went by without Serena winning a slam, while Venus went empty-handed for over three years...a virtual lifetime in tennis, as Martina Hingis might be about to learn the hard way). But, suddenly, almost out of nowhere, just when almost everyone had written off the Williams Era as a tennis relic, they picked themselves up off the hardcourt (and grass) and both claimed slam titles in 2005. It wasn't quite like the "good ol' days," but it was close enough to make everyone remember what they felt like.

Sure, neither put together a viable "Second Act" to their seasons. In fact, both Venus and Serena saw their year-end rankings actually fall despite their biggest fortnights in ages (Venus went from #9 to #10, Serena from #7 to #11). Serena's year turned to dust after winning the Australian Open, as an ankle injury turned into a knee injury following inadequate rehab and Serena's impatience; while Venus' year, which didn't quite take a truly disasterous turn following her SW19 triumph, never seemed to fully recover from her Centre Court joy enough to convince her to realize she still had half a season left to play (after winning seven matches at the All England Club, she won just eight tour matches the rest of the year).

So what now? Were last year's triumphs the final reminders from the sisters of what their respective careers have both been, as well as not been? Not likely, but, as usual, 2006 will probably be another mixed bag. The best bet from here might be one sister following up her 2005 season with a better one in 2006, while the other suffers through an injury-marred campaign that sees her either simply maintain her ranking, or fall a few notches.

Maybe that's the best scenario for all involved, too. After all, no one really thrived when both sisters were on top of their games. All those slam final matchups became a bit monotonous, not so much because no one else played in them (though, a case can be made that the sport suffered because the rest of the field became anonymous, then when the sisters periodically dropped off the radar they left a bunch of no-names -- to the casual fan -- to carry out the day-to-day operations of the tour) as because neither really had their heart in beating the other. The results was usually some pretty lackluster tennis. What should have been a celebration for the sport turned out to be moments that only stand out now because of the specifics of the two participants' births. Of the two, Venus was the least inspired by the situation of having to take someting away from her little sister, so Serena won the "Serena Slam" with Venus going 0-4 against her in the finals during the remarkable run.

And so it goes that, while Serena is the actress, per se... Venus' role in their story has always been the most dramatic, as well as the most sympathetic. She's the one who went from being dominant to playing second fiddle to a person whose diaper she likely once changed. She went from taking pictures of her sister holding up a trophy that could have been her's to losing the aura that once surrounded her.

It's because of that that I've felt for some time now that Venus would be the one of the two who'd be with us longer, who'd stay the most hungry, and who'd work the hardest to reclaim at least a portion of her position on the WTA stage. Serena's commandeering of all the best lines in their script never allowed Venus the chance to "take a bow." The 2005 Wimbledon might just have been the beginning of her long successful kiss goodbye.

Serena is the multimedia star, but Venus is closer to being "just" a tennis player, at least in exclusively athletic terms. The sisters' "For Real" reality series inadvertantly showed Venus to be the one of the two who actually enjoys training rather than complaining, and the one who doesn't take her position for granted. In a way, Serena is built to be a sprinter, but Venus is more capable of resembling a long-distance runner. Serena can still dazzle in a "100m flourish" (Melbourne '05) on sheer ability, but Venus' glory is more likely to come in running and winning the marathon with a greater expenditure of blood, sweat and tears. For example, Serena has won six of her seven slams in a four-year period; while Venus' five have come in a six-year stretch, with a 43-month drought in the middle.

Serena won last year's Australian Open despite not being 100%, or even playing all that well or consistently. She won it on heart, grit and soul born out of having something to prove after going those eighteen months without a slam. That Oz win might just be enough to hold Serena for a while. She proved her point -- she can do it if she sets her mind to it. Wimbledon '05 might not hold the same sway for Venus. Even if she doesn't wear it on her sleeve, the athlete in her has had something to prove since she watched from the stands as Serena won the U.S. Open in '99.

So, 2005 might have been a watershed year in the Williams drama. It might have caused Venus to realize that she can still be the star of this story in the long run. Sure, Serena will stick around and have her great moments, but month after month success and/or health, stringing together full seasons? It's hard to see it happening. Venus, on the other hand, might still have a nice run left in her. Certainly the next few years at Wimbledon, at least. As long as her body doesn't betray her (and it could), who's to say she might not even catch her sister in career slams now that she's proven her slam-winning days aren't behind her? We might be about to flashback to the start when Venus was the dominant character in the Williams story, a full circle trek that would be the only rightful way for the final scenes of this production to play out. Her 2-0 record vs. Serena last year has already given her a head start.

Back in 2000-01, "The Summer of Venus" was in full swing as she won back-to-back Wimbledon & U.S. Open titles two straight years. After last year's Wimbledon, the thought was their that she might have the chance to cobble together a revival. But it didn't happen. It could in 2006, though. With the pressure off, it's hard to believe the joy in her game won't be even more apparent. There's already a sense that the game has a bigger portion of her soul than Serena's (even if she, too, has her own designing business and off-court interests taking up much of her time), as well as a heart that's not so easily distracted.

Of course, it'd be nice if Venus were a bit more gracious in defeat (vs. anyone not named Serena, anyway), and hadn't more than earned her Ferris nickname last year. And it's hard not to wish she realized the existence of the invisible line you shouldn't cross even in victory, too (remember the Wimbledon ceremony?). But I guess we can't have it all. I've made a habit here at Backspin poking fun at her ability to remain singularly oblivious to the niceties of polite tennis etiquette, but after watching the ATP struggle for so long with a perceived "lack of personality," having Venus around is good for everyone. If she were more "perfect" she'd be far less fun. I mean, you just can't hold your breath hoping for Sneaky Patty to take a swing a someone all year long.

So, maybe we are witnessing the "opening night" of a new Williams power play, no matter how long this particular production ends up lasting. But, at least in the short term, the ol' crystal ball says that one sister will win a slam in 2006, and it won't be Serena.

1.It's almost crazy to try to predict what Serena will do. In 2004, I said she'd win two slams and she won zero. In 2005, I said she'd win zero and she blew that one away less than a month into the season. So, I'll bite my lip and do it all over again: no slam for Serena, but she'll reach one slam SF. (Watch, she'll go and defend in Melbourne now.)
2.Serena will extend her string of seasons with a title to 8, winning a Tier I somewhere along the way, but having a hard time elsewhere as she battles multiple injuries.
3.Serena's ranking will either hold steady or slightly fall, while Venus improves on her #9 standing...
4. ...winning a WTA title to stretch her tour-best streak to 9 years...
5. ...while defending her Wimbledon title and placing #1 in the U.S. Open Series before having her "Summer of Venus" run cancelled in the U.S. Open final.


**WEEK 1...taking the plunge**

...well, the draws are out and it's that time of year again. Time to piece together a fantasy team on, and try to get off to a better start with my champion picks than I did a year ago. Week 1 is tough, as I've gone 3-1 and 1-3 in picks the past two years. Crossing my fingers...

05 F: Schnyder d. Stosur
06 TOP: Schnyder/Schiavone
SF: Safina d. Schnyder; Koukalova d. Pennetta
FINAL: Koukalova d. Safina

...I just have to go with a Maiden in Week 1

05 F: Srebotnik d. Asagoe
06 TOP: Petrova/Hantuchova
SF: Petrova d. Likhovtseva; Kirilenko d. Hantuchova
FINAL: Petrova d. Kirilenko

..the first test for a no-longer-title-free Petrova. Hingis opens up with Vento-Kabchi in the 1st Round, while Dokic plays Schruff, by the way.

05 F: Slovakia d. Argentina
06 GROUPS: A-Russia,USA,Sweden,Serbia / B-Germany,Australia,Argentina,Netherlands
FINAL: Germany def. Serbia & Montenegro

...I have to go with Girl Friday Groenefeld (& Nicolas Kiefer) in Week 1

HONG KONG (exhibition)
05 F: Dementieva d. Venus
FINAL: V.Williams d. Clijsters

...we might learn more from this event -- which includes Venus, Davenport, Clijsters, Serena, Dementieva, Vaidisova, Mirza & Zheng -- than from all the other tune-up events put together.

All for now.


NEXT: Killer Kim, Le Petit Taureau and the new dynamic


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