There's a grocery list of reasons for Williamses' decline
May 9, 2006
By Joel Drucker
Special to CBS SportsLine.com
Last week a supermarket clerk saw I was wearing tennis clothes and asked if I'd ever seen the duo he called "the sisters" play. He added, "They sure kick butt, don't they?" I told him that Venus and Serena Williams were great players but these days weren't taking home any hardware.
I didn't tell him that saying that left me feeling quite ambivalent.
At one level, the erosion of Venus and Serena makes me mad, angry that two champions who might have been catalysts for making tennis popular in the manner of Tiger Woods have lost their way and opted for glitz over glory.
The compassionate part of me is sad, seeing a sorry tale of rise and decline, set amid a lonely sport where responsibility and desire are strictly personal and maintaining solitary focus is a tough go. Then again, it's important to remember what motivated Venus and Serena to reach this point.
In the spring of 1978, Richard Williams was watching TV and saw a woman named Virginia Ruzici holding up a large check. She'd just won the French Open. A light bulb went off in his head: Bring a daughter into the world and make her a tennis champion. Just in case, why not two?
So here is the takeaway: Richard saw big money -- tennis as a means, not an end. Mission accomplished. By obeying their dad's orders, Venus and Serena will never have to work a day in their lives. With each having lived barely a quarter-century, what remains?
Regardless of intent, the duo's journey from Compton to Wimbledon is one of the most incredible tales in the history of sports. As Lindsay Davenport once said, "Imagine if Tiger had a brother chasing him down on the 16th hole of the Masters."
Imagine indeed, and for a time, that's exactly what Venus and Serena were doing. Not once in the 20th century did two sisters meet in the finals of a major tennis tournament (I assume you don't remember the Watson rivalry of 1884). But starting with the 2001 U.S. Open, Venus and Serena squared off in six Slam finals in less than two years. So powerful, swift and gutsy were these two that they could even overcome their technical limits with raw and compelling confidence.
But the way competition works is that rivals study, catch up and seek to surpass. And since tennis players have no teammates banging them around in practice to get better and pursue that title, dedication is strictly an individual matter.
On the one hand, this can trigger incredible efforts of singular ambition, as evidenced by the careers of Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. But deregulation can leave one adrift. John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Andre Agassi all spent many hours lamenting the burdens of being the world's best and that perhaps it might not be so great to try to be a champion. Joe Montana's fellow 49ers would've kicked his butt had he spoken with such angst about the pursuit of a Super Bowl ring.
"Tennis is harder because you always have to take the shot," says former NBA player John Lucas, an All-American in both basketball and tennis. "But basketball makes you a better person because you learn to work with other people and create something that's bigger than you. Team play gives you something to strive for."
Venus and Serena -- for a time a team unto themselves, theoretically pushing and supporting one another -- have always been keen to discuss their offcourt interests. Venus, more cerebral and reticent, is drawn to her interior design business and books. The visceral Serena favors fashion and acting.
So long as they were competing and winning, who dared argue that these activities would divert their focus? But as their dedication wavered and wandered -- in the first four months of 2006, the two played but one event, January's Australian Open, repeatedly withdrawing from subsequent tournaments with injuries -- it's left me wondering if these offcourt pursuits are merely a smokescreen for an evasion of the heavy lifting it takes to be a world-class athlete.
"I'm not just a tennis star," Serena once said, "I'm a superstar."
Proud of her ability to command a camera, always more eager to discuss her footwear than her footwork, Serena last week issued a news release declaring her desire to return to the WTA Tour and overcome her knee and ankle injuries. Oddly enough, it's not even displayed on her bubble-gum pink website (which does offer ways to get Serena Williams wallpaper and ring tones).
Having sat through news conferences where Serena has filed her nails, argued over the meaning of the word "ghetto," and usually failed to credit her opponent for anything other than being a "nice girl," my initially response boiled down to one word: Whatever.
I am in large part heartily bored with Serena's persona but still willing to hold out a candle in hopes that she might have the gumption to make a go at being a champion once again.
It's tougher to assess Venus. Lacking Serena's external swagger -- in fact, there are times Venus speaks as if she's near-catatonic -- she tends to be far more pensive than her younger sister.
Best of all, she has started to play again too. Last week she fought through cramps to earn a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over longstanding rival Martina Hingis at an event in Warsaw.
Not having seen the match (curse this international sport -- and $100 to someone who can get me a tape), it's tough to know what conclusion to draw. Is Hingis playing at the level of a Wimbledon champion, or is Venus barely a top 20 player?
Venus played gutsy tennis to win Wimbledon last year, but even then it was clear she'd take very little from that win and build a consistent pattern of play. Upon losing to Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open last September, she issued a lame excuse that her opponent's weak play and change of pace had been the reason for her defeat.
Run that by me again: Steve Nash and the Suns were playing so poorly that Kobe and the Lakers couldn't help but blow that lead. Golly, there are times I know precisely why tennis generates such poor cultural traction in this country. In a nation of individuals, the last thing we want from the sports world is yet another showcase of self-reliance run amok.
Tempting at is to say it's mostly a matter of desire, that all Venus and Serena need to do is get out there and they'll be making my local supermarket clerk happy, there are a number of technical and physical factors affecting both sisters.
First off, they get injured for a very cogent reason. For world-class players, they have terrible technique, muscling the ball more with their arms and wrists than using all of their body weight to generate pace. It's most apparent on each of their forehands, which can fly when not timed properly.
Venus' service motion, a delivery she once claimed was patterned after Pete Sampras' great serve, is horrifically unbalanced and likely to cause shoulder problems. At the world-class level, bad technique triggers a vicious cycle of injuries, the inability to train, poor fitness and erratic competition.
Second, the upgrades in power Venus and Serena brought to the tour have been matched by many other players. No longer do they have the biggest weapons. Now it's a matter of their willingness to try to grub out improvements.
As children, these two followed their father's directions right to the top. To do so they occupied, as most tennis players do, a bubble of self-assurance and self-absorption.
"Why," Connors once asked me, "should I even care what anyone else does?"
As adults, do they have the gumption to go for greatness? Let me repeat: I only want them to make the effort. Certainly they don't have to. Personal responsibility is tennis' bedrock.
But as Billie Jean King says, "Do you want to be 50 years old, sitting in your chair, asking yourself, 'What if? What if I'd put it on the line and let myself see who I could be?'"
Memo to Venus and Serena: Stop trying to be so interesting. Just be interested.