The untouchables

The Williams sisters, Serena (left) and Venus. — Pic. AFP-The Williams sisters, Serena (left) and Venus. — Pic. AFP

Venus and Serena Williams are raising the bar, and women's tennis is better for it. By JOHNETTE HOWARD.

WITH Venus and Serena Williams the odds-on favourites to reach the final of every Grand Slam they decide to enter, the women's game remains shadowed by the unresolved question that's been tossed out ad nauseam in press conferences and on TV and talk radio: Is the Williams sisters' dominance bad for tennis? In other words, have they made women's tennis predictable and boring?

The mere suggestion is insulting.

Haven't sports always been made better by the presence of greatness? Think about how Tiger Woods' long-hitting prowess has changed the geometry of golf. Think of Wayne Gretzky inventing a new way to play hockey from behind the net. Think of how Julius Erving's above the rim game begat Michael Jordan, who begat Kobe Bryant. The real greats in sports incite wonder.

The Williams sisters do that, especially when they turn their nonpareil power, jackrabbit speed, and will to win on each other. Not only are you treated to the most awesome display of power that women's tennis has ever seen, but you also get the psychological drama of two sisters who are very close testing and troubling each other on a world stage.

True, their first few meetings were riddled with ugly unforced errors, but that's changed, as last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals proved. And if there was any lingering suspicion that their dad, Richard, "fixes" their matches, then Venus' peevish mood at the 2002 U.S. Open after her third straight Grand Slam final loss to Serena left no doubt: The rivalry is on.

Though 21-year-old Serena is 15 months Venus' junior, coming into this year's Australian Open she had already tied big sis with four major titles. And the more remorseless they become when playing each other, the more transcendent their matches should be.

What's not to like about that?

And yet, the Williamses still have more than their fair share of detractors who say they're making the game predictable. You cannot help but notice the lousy undertones to such an assertion.

Billie Jean King says, "To me, it's a racist comment, `They're bad for tennis.' I think they're the best things that have ever happened to women's tennis. I mean, would people say it's bad to have these two sisters doing all this if they were white? Everyone should be thrilled with what they're doing and the rivalry they now have. This is what you want."

Characterising a tennis champion's dominance as a blight on the game wasn't an issue when King ruled the tour. It didn't come up when Chris Evert was hoarding titles or Martina Navratilova was putting together a 74-match unbeaten streak. And where was the outcry when Steffi Graf was pulling off her Golden Slam in 1988?

"People liked the dominance of those champions," King says. "They thought it was great."

It's equally great the way Venus and Serena have changed the way the game is played. Until they came along, few people foresaw a day when two women would be blasting ground strokes so hard or serving faster than some male pros. "They've raised the bar in tennis like every generation of great players before them has," King says.

Best of all, the Williamses might help the other top players maximise their potentials. At last year's U.S. Open, many of the game's elite finally stopped whining about the sisters' domination. One by one, from Amelie Mauresmo to Lindsay Davenport to Chanda Rubin, each player said that her only chance to challenge for the top was to bust a gut to improve herself.

And if they don't? Expect a lot more all-Williams finals. Which is hardly bad. It's as good as women's tennis gets.