Even in Their 10th U.S. Open, The Sisters Are Ones To Beat
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
We had it all wrong.
The Williams sisters, everyone thought, weren’t much interested in tennis. The game was too easy, they were too far ahead of everyone else, they had better things to do. They would retire young, pack up their rackets, and spend the rest of their days designing dresses and making movies as they lived off their many millions in endorsements. “They gave a lot to the game,” we all expected to say, “but they could have given it more.” What sadder story is there in sports than wasted talent?
As Venus, 28, and Serena, now a month shy of 27, prepare to play the 10th U.S. Open of their careers, their actions — and their résumés — tell a different story. Sure, the sisters have skipped many small tournaments for questionable injuries, and yes, they’ve had dry spells where they seemed incapable of winning majors. They also have a spotty record in support of the Federation Cup. But these are, in the end, minor sins, the sort that every professional tennis player commits in a career. What matters most, as the sisters inch closer to age 30, is that they have never lost their love for the game’s biggest stages, never lost the desire to compete when it matters most. All those years when we thought the sisters were on the verge of burning out, they were preventing themselves — through various rejuvenating distractions — from doing just that.
Venus turned professional in 1994, when she was 14 years old. Serena, a year younger, followed in 1995. Together, they have played 77 of the 89 major tournaments for which they have been eligible (Venus has missed four and Serena 12). They have played nearly 1,100 singles matches, combined, in their careers (Venus is one victory away from 500 and Serena is closing in on 400). They have won 68 titles, 15 of them majors.
Compared to Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova, these figures are nothing remarkable: Navratilova, for example, played more than 1,600 singles matches and nearly another 900 in doubles, and won 344 total titles. But one can no longer criticize the sisters for playing at their own pace, not when more obsessive performers have retired early. When Justine Henin, last year’s U.S. Open champion, quit the sport earlier this year and left the no. 1 ranking behind, she had played roughly the same number of singles matches as Venus (600) but in four fewer years on the tour. Martina Hingis, who was known for playing as often as possible, retired in 2002 because of injuries, and then retired a second time, at age 27, after she tested positive for cocaine. Kim Clijsters, another relentless player who packed more than 500 singles matches into an injury-plagued career, retired last year at age 23 and has since given birth to her first child.
The Williams sisters have outlasted their generation (Hingis turned pro in 1994) and the one that followed (Henin and Clijsters), and are going strong today as the current generation searches in vain for a true leader. How much longer will they play? Venus looks capable of winning Wimbledon into her 30s. Serena has played more matches to this point in the season (42 and counting) than in any year since 2002, when she dominated the tour and won three major titles. Unless the current crop of young talent — led by world no. 1 Ana Ivanovic, no. 2 Jelena Jankovic, and the injured Maria Sharapova — improves markedly, the Williams sisters could contend for years to come.
One would think that the U.S. Open would present them with their best chance for success. Yet neither sister has won this tournament since 2002, when Serena finished off the fourth consecutive Williams title in Flushing. This year, they are the favorites in a field that has too little experience and too little confidence. Serena has the most to gain here. She’s logged a lot of hours this season and boosted her ranking to no. 4 in the world. Yet for all her efforts, she has yet to win a major title. If she wins the Open, she might regain the no. 1 ranking — and put an end to any discussion about her longevity.
Unfortunately for American fans, the sisters were placed in the same quarter of the draw yesterday, so they might meet in the quarterfinals (see below). But don’t fret. At this point, all signs suggest that they will return next year, and perhaps for many years after that.