Leader Blues

Friday, July 10, 2009

SPORTS >> Like them or not, Williams sisters are simply remarkable

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

There have been countless sets that came before them, from the DiMaggios to the Niekros to the Alous to the Mannings.

None of those sports siblings, however, have came close to achieving what Venus and Serena Williams have achieved — and that’s even taking into account Peyton and Eli Manning’s back-to-back Super Bowl rings.

The Williams sisters are in a class by themselves when it comes to brother or sister acts. The numbers say it all, but there is also the fact that they are racking up those numbers contemporaneously in an individual sport which one or the other has dominated for most of the past nine years, often earning their crowns at the other’s expense.

First the numbers: 18 Grand Slam singles titles (11 for Serena); nine Grand Slam doubles championships together, including four at Wimbledon; eight of the past 10 Wimbledon singles titles between them; Olympic gold for the sisters in doubles in 2008 and a gold medal in singles for Serena in 2000.

Last weekend in England, Venus and Serena delivered the total package, reaching the singles finals — Serena won — and capturing the doubles championship together. Really, what more could they have done?

And yet, given the remarkable story that is the Williams sisters, they seem not to receive the recognition and the accolades that that story and their remarkable accomplishments merit, either from the media or the fans.

Yes, it is perhaps understandable that what they did last week was eclipsed by Roger Federer’s record-setting 15th Grand Slam in a one-for-the-ages win over American Andy Roddick. But, really, should what the Williamses did be relegated to a Wimbledon afterthought?

I think there are several reasons that go beyond the race issue for the fans’ reluctance to fully embrace the sisters, though I am not discounting the idea that being supremely accomplished African-American athletes in a mostly Caucasian, if thoroughly international, sport engenders some resentment. And yet Tiger Woods seems to be beloved by a majority of golf fans who are overwhelmingly white.

No, I think the matter of the Williamses’ cool, if polite, reception from the sports world has more to do with their personalities, their style and the game of tennis itself.

From the outset, Serena and Venus adopted an us-against-the-world demeanor, which set the stage for icy relationships with fellow players, several of whom were openly critical of what they perceived as the sisters’ smugness. They were reported to be aloof and apparently didn’t feel the need to develop any camaraderie in the locker room.

With the media, both could seem petulant and neither was particularly gracious in suffering defeats early in their careers.

(Today, their offerings to the media seem rehearsed, strained and not genuine).

For that, they can blame their father, a man who also deserves enormous praise for guiding his young daughters through a mine-filled childhood in violent Compton, California. Richard Williams was undoubtedly instrumental in developing that us-against-the-world mentality in his daughters, but he is also responsible for that singleness of purpose that has served them so well.

From early on, he set their sights on the prizes they have gone on to accumulate at such a remarkable level.

But being home-schooled Jehova’s Witnesses certainly couldn’t have done the girls’ any favors in terms of socialization and must only have added to their sense of being unique and isolated.

They have also been criticized — I think, unfairly — by former greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, among others — for not dedicating themselves exclusively to the sport. Serena and Venus have both branched off into other pursuits, including modeling and clothing design.

The fact that they seem able to take time off, and then can so effortlessly return to dominate again, has to be a source of frustration and resentment for the other players on the tour. Those other pursuits surely add to the perception of aloofness, as well.

Yet, in some ways, it is admirable that they have other interests, that despite their father’s iron-fisted drive and single-mindedness, they have discovered a world beyond the rigors and grind of professional tennis.

Add to all of that the fact that the overpowering, somewhat graceless game of Serena’s is not exactly a crowd-pleaser. Venus has the more graceful game, but Serena is the more media-savvy these days.

Finally, the sport itself is in decline, thanks primarily to brackets filled with indistinguishable names that all seem to end in –ova. The sisters and the sport would benefit from either another American rival — though none seem to be on the horizon — or from the return to form of Maria Sharapova.

One gets the sense that the Williams sisters themselves aren’t particularly concerned with how they are received — a fact both admirable and at the same time reinforcing of their aloof reputations.

Whatever your feelings about Serena and Venus Williams, their presence is no less eclipsing than Tiger’s. We should probably all step back and relish the singularity of their accomplishments while they’re still playing the game.