The Decade's Best: Player #4- "LeaVes of Grass"
It's at this point that Backspin's "Decade's Best" countdown of the final five of the Top 25 players of the 2000's gets sticky... at least as far as the odd placing of the #3 and #4 players is concerned.
For all intents and purposes, Player #4 should probably be ranked #3. She won more titles than #3 did during the decade. She claimed more than twice as many slam titles, in fact. If not for a single player standing in her way, #4 would likely have totaled double-digit slam singles crowns by now. But while this player is forever favorably entwined with that particular player/obstacle, she also can't help but manage to somewhat pale in comparison to her when it comes to career accomplishments. Two heads are better than one, but one head is usually just a little bit bigger. Thus, taken down an "illusionary" peg by said player, #4's accomplishments are suddenly seen in a different light. With the playing field artificially "leveled," #3's multi-slam accomplishments caused her to be the "winner" in my final flip-flopping of their positions on this list. So, unfortunately for her, #4 gets her "Decade's Best" individual spotlight a day early.
Now, let's stop with all this "#4" business and get down to it:
#4 - Venus Williams, USA
Those long legs. Chasing down a ball on the edges of the green court, eating up large swatches of turf with every large step. It's one of the most awesome sights in sport.
Venus and Serena Williams will be forever tied together in tennis lore. But while Serena's career accomplishments could be viewed and admired in a spotlight all their own, Venus' still must be examined in a somewhat dimmer light... within the very long shadow that her younger sibling has come to cast.
Of course, no one would have believed such a thing would have been possible back when the audacious story of the Williams sisters began. Way back when, the lead paragraph in every story on the family was about Venus. And she was more than enough.
In her first Wimbledon in 1997, she played into the second week without ever even having completed her 1st Round match thanks to a record amount of rainfall, as if the ghosts of the All-England Club were sending a message that this wiry American kid was going to receive "most favored player" status over the course of her career there (at least, in retrospect, it seems that way). When she made her debut at the U.S. Open later that summer, the 17-year old advanced all the way to the final. She lost to Martina Hingis, but it was apparent that all the early hype about the African-American girl from the public courts of Compton, California was genuine... and might have even been UNDERsold, if it was possible.
While father Richard liked to talk about younger sister Serena, and we'd always see her practicing side-by-side with Venus in all the home videos and news footage shot by visiting reporters, no one could bring themselves to believe that BOTH would become tennis legends. Just believing that Venus could rise from circumstance to do so without having "followed the rules" of junior tennis and the sport's overall establishment was difficult enough to fathom. But, little did we know then that Richard was pretty much always right when it came to the talent of Venus and Serena, and when he said that Serena was going to be the TRUE one who'd take over the sport he wasn't just playing the proud papa wearing rose-colored glasses. He KNEW, and he was just sitting back waiting to see how long it'd take before everyone else did, too. Oddly enough, in that group might have been Venus herself.
Surely, she was as taken aback as everyone else (excluding Richard) when Serena popped up and stole her thunder two years later when, as a 17-year old, she beat Venus to the punch by winning the family's first grand slam singles title at the U.S. Open. While the accomplishment was stunning, the most interesting thing about that final was watching Venus watch it from the stands. Eight slams after she'd reached the Open final herself, she'd yet to reach another slam final. The image of her, happy for her sister yet oddly subdued throughout the day while wrapped in a head-concealing hoodie that somehow seemed to hide her own personal disappointment in not having yet experienced the same glory, is both a peek at the champion that Venus would eventually become, as well as the enigma she sometimes couldn't help but be when it came to competing against her little sister.
Immediately after that moment, Venus resumed her role as "lead" sister, running her her career record against Serena to 5-1 over the period from 1998-2001. In 2000, she put together the tour's longest winning streak of the decade, a 35-match run. In 2000-01, she rode the wave of back-to-back "Summer of Venus" moments, sweeping both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles each year, defeating Serena in the '01 final in New York in the first-ever nighttime final (a phenonenom created largely to capitalize on the sisters' ever-expanding media visibility and popularity). Early in 2002, Venus rose to the #1 ranking for the first time, holding the spot for a total of eleven weeks during three stints atop the rankings.
It was at about that time that everything changed. Serena defeated Venus in the '02 Roland Garros final, taking the lead in the "imaginary" race between their careers. She's never relinquished it. She defeated Venus in the Wimbledon final, as well, effectively putting her foot on the gas pedal in a stretch from 2002-03 where Serena won six consecutive matchups between the two. After having become the sport's dominate player in the opening years of the decade, Venus spent the rest of it as the acknoweldged #2 in her own family. As was the case with so many women, from Lindsay Davenport on down, Venus' career was forever altered by the presence of Serena. Just when Venus was hitting the prime slam-winning period of her career, Serena became THE star in the sport.
The sisters would meet in five consecutive slams in which both played, and six of seven starting with that '02 RG meeting. As Serena wrote her own unique chapter in tennis history, a "Serena Slam" in which she won four straight slam titles over two seasons, Venus was on the losing end in the final of all four victories. Her "supporting" role was apparent.
Against everyone else, though, Venus more than held her own. She won thirty-two of her forty-one career singles titles during the decade, claiming an Olympic Gold in singles in '00 (and doubles with Serena in '00 & '08). She won seven slams (five Wimbledon, two U.S. Open) in fourteen career appearances in finals (besides Serena, only Hingis has ever defeated Venus in a slam final -- in her first in '97), claimed ten slam Doubles titles (all with Serena) and two Mixed titles with Justin Gimelstob in '98. Ten times she's finished seasons in the Top 10, including eight in the 2000's.
Still, though, she never regained the #1 ranking after her brief time there in '02, and has never been a year-end #1. As Serena's career soared, Venus' changed. Since her cannon fodder-like role during "Serena Slam," Venus has yet to win a third U.S. Open title, and has never claimed the Australian Open or Roland Garros. Her last Oz final came in '03, and it's been even longer since she played the final match in Paris or NYC (both in '02).
Approaching the net behind a huge, whipping forehand. Planting herself at the net and daring her scrambling opponent to pass her, then gobbling up a well-intentioned shot and putting away a lethal volley with a "how dare you, in my house?" attitude, closing in on yet another SW19 crown. "Venus at Wimbledon"... no single phrase in the sport carries with it so much inherent meaning.
While Venus can't stake a claim to having been able to dominate the sport as Serena has at times, there has been one locale where she's been able to stand prouder than any other women during the decade. The All-England Club. Throughout the 2000's, Wimbledon has been her personal playground. The best grass courter in the world, Venus has invariably always been able to come to London and raise her game to a championship level, no matter what her form or mindset might have been just before the start of the fortnight. And it should have been the case from the start. After all, Venus seems perfectly suited to the lawns. Her wingspan at the net, footspeed and large strides have always made the courts at SW19 somehow seem "smaller" for her than for any other player in the field. Still, though, it's always been the atmosphere that's worked most in her favor. There, her volleys have more punch. Her forehand is more consistent. Her serve, while always hard, also more reliable. There, and in her heart, her confidence is boundless.
Venus has won Wimbledon from all angles of the draw, claiming titles as a #2, #5 and #7 seed, but also as a #14 and #23 over the years. Whenever she's needed a boost, SW19 has often provided her a lifeline. And in the years when it hasn't, especially during the back half of the decade, her season just hasn't seemed to have been "worthwhile," not just in the eyes of those on the outside, but also on the face of Venus herself. Unlike anywhere else, it visibly HURTS her to lose a match at the All-England Club. If only every player could feel such closeness to and passion for a place of honor as Venus does with Wimbledon, the WTA tour would be an entirely different entity to behold.
Wimbledon is her muse. Like a great poet, she's still trying to perfect her prose on the grass after all these years. And it's because of this that Martina Navratilova's record of nine singles titles is not entirely safe, even though Venus still stands four championships behind at age 29. Remember, Martina reached her last SW19 Ladies' final at age 37.
Venus wasn't able to grab a single slam crown from 2002 to mid-'05 (Serena won six), as injuries, the '03 murder of sister Yetunde and what most declared a "lack of total commitment" to the sport served to produce a downturn in her fortunes. Naturally, it was Wimbledon that was her oasis. In 2005, she came back from a match point down in the final against Davenport to win a 9-7 3rd set in the longest women's final in the tournament's history. So elated with her return to the forefront, and having done it at her favorite event, Venus seemed to jump up and down from the end of the match until the end of the trophy presentation, so much so that it bordered on being disrespectful to her emotionally crestfallen opponent. But, in retrospect, it's hard to judge such joy too harshly in the memory's light.
2006 again brought Venus back down to earth. A series of injuries lowered her season-ending ranking to #48. But, again, it was Wimbledon to the rescue... leading to the recent resurgence in Williams' slam viability. Back-to-back titles in 2007-08 gave her five Ladies' singles titles for the decade, but her loss to Serena (of course) in the '09 finale prevented her from tying Navratilova for the most productive single decade in the Championships' history. Making inroads onto Venus' turf even there, it was the third time ('02-'03) Serena bested her in a Wimbledon final. Still, on the whole, Venus compiled a decade's worth of stats that are a feast for the eyes: the five titles in eight singles finals, a 52-5 match record, and four Doubles titles with Serena.
After a brief recapturing of control in her series with her sister, when Venus went 4-2 from 2005-08, this past season saw Serena surge once again. She won four of five matches in the '09 season, including defeating Venus in the Wimbledon and Season-Ending Championship finals. Still, their recent matches have been in stark contrast to their earlier meetings. Showing no relish to defeat each other, they rarely played their best against each other in the early days. The winner of the opening set usually walked away with an easy straight sets victory. Now, though, with both possibly realizing their remaining years on tour are swiftly dwindling, they've played a series of great, competitive contests. Twice in the last two seasons, Serena has come back from being match point down to defeat Venus, and they've participated in three matches decided by 3rd set tie-breaks.
While Serena has returned to #1, Venus has managed to put together back-to-back season-ending rankings of #6, win her first-ever SEC title ('08) and push her career victory total over 550, making her the winningest active female on tour. And with so many players retiring and/or taking "sabbaticals" of late, neither sister seems anywhere near retiring. Venus has stated a desire to play into her late 30's, participate in the '12 Olympics (in London, with the tennis event held you-know-where), and maybe even in '16; while Serena recently said she wants to add an Olympic singles Gold to her collection (it's the only major title she's never won).
Over the years, both sisters have often been criticized for their off-court interests and long periods of inactivity and/or lackluster results away from the slams (hmmmm, sometimes it even "costs" one of them a "Player of the Year" award, I hear). While Serena has usually found ways to bask in the spotlight during such moments (acting, writing a book, posing sans clothes for ESPN Magazine), Venus has generally occupied her time with artistic and business ventures (and has successfuly combined them with her EleVen fashion line). The truth is, though, their life diversity, as long as they avoid a major injury, is likely the reason they seem to be in the process of adding quite a few super-productive years to the ends of their careers. They haven't burned themselves out on the sport, and are here now because they want to be, not because they feel like they have no other choice because it's the only way of life they know. With an admirable encyclopedia of experience, they understand their desire for major titles, and know how to pace themselves in a way that makes such success still possible as they approach their thirtieth birthdays. Maybe without the mutual support of these two still-best friends, we would have seen the last of them ages ago. Along the winding road of a tennis career, such unfailing support has a way of making both parties better over the course of it all.
Venus, especially, has quietly matured into a leadership role on the tour, becoming a member of the Players Council and serving as an unofficial spokeswoman for the sport. Even if her actions during this past season's Dubai Debacle were wanting, it's difficult to not give her credit for stepping up to a role of responsibility when so few others seem to have much desire for such commitment.
Venus. Lifting the golden (and appropriately named) Venus Rosewater dish, with grass underfoot. With apologies to Justine on la terre battau, there is no more ethereally pleasing a sight in tennis. The vision of her as the champion of Wimbledon is THE most indelible image of this past decade.
If not for Serena's rise, so much more pressure would have been heaped upon Venus over the years. The way things played out, "the serene sister" has been able to mostly maintain an even emotional keel throughout her career. While her sister may have single-handedly prevented HER career from being a lusterous as it might have otherwise been, Venus is Venus because of all the "good" and "bad" notes that make up the story of a pair of sisters who grew up to change the face of this sport forever. Without Serena, Venus would be different... and maybe not the Venus we now know.
So, in the end, I admit that maybe it's "unfair" to judge Venus' so-called worth over a ten-year span with an eye toward what her sister did causing her to be judged "less successful" than she might otherwise be seen. But numbers in sports, when you think about it, are just that... numbers. They really only serve to provide tangible evidence of greatness for future generations, and something for everyone now to bandy about while trying to back up their own opinions.
Our eyes haven't been playing tricks on us. We know how great a player Venus Williams has been. It's been a privilege to watch her... and hopefully that'll continue to be the case for quite a while longer.
*BACKSPIN LINKS OF NOTE*
If Only (Wimbledon 2005)
Home is Where the Heart Is (Wimbledon '07)
The Mark of Venus (Wimbledon '08)
What If...? (Wimbledon 2015)
TOMORROW: Player #3
4. Venus Williams, USA
5. Kim Clijsters, BEL
6. Jennifer Capriati, USA
7. Lindsay Davenport, USA
8. Amelie Mauresmo, FRA
9. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS
10. Cara Black, ZIM
11. Lisa Raymond, USA
12t. Virginia Ruano Pascual, ESP
12t. Paola Suarez, ARG
14. Rennae Stubbs, AUS
15. Elena Dementieva, RUS
16. Martina Hingis, SUI
17. Liezel Huber, RSA/USA
18. Mary Pierce, FRA
19. Dinara Safina, RUS
20. Daniela Hantuchova, SVK
21. Ana Ivanovic, SRB
22. Jelena Jankovic, SRB
23. Ai Sugiyama, JPN
24. Anastasia Myskina, RUS
25. Patty Schnyder, SUI
HONORABLE MENTION- Martina Navratilova, USA
Here are the remaining 3 players on the countdown list:
*BACKSPIN'S 2000-09 HONOR ROLL, #27-116*
Mariaan de Swardt
Silvia Farina Elia
Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez
Dominique van Roost
All for now.
"DECADE'S BEST" SERIES:
...Players of the 2000's: Nomination List, Australian Open 2000-09, Roland Garros 2000-09, Wimbledon 2000-09, U.S. Open 2000-09, Players #21-25, Players #16-20, Players #11-15, Players #6-10, Player #5-"Splitting Hairs"