The Williams hegemony

NIRMAL SHEKAR

ARE the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, good for women's tennis? Or, are they a pair of Terminators who seem destined to rob the women's game of all its timeless charms - colour, variety, competitive intensity and unpredictability?

Coming not long after the two remarkably gifted athletes competed in a second straight Grand Slam final of the summer at Wimbledon, these might sound a bit like asking whether Tiger Woods' dominance was good for golf or not, or whether Michael Jordan's genius was good for basketball or not.

Serena Williams points to her name on the women's singles champions Roll of Honour in the Clubhouse at the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon.-AP

The point no one can miss is this: Venus first, and then Serena now, have raised the bar so high that in a sport that's temporarily lost some of its top stars - Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport - because of injuries, they simply seem to be invincible.

And, in many people's eyes, such invincibility is bad for any sport, and particularly so when two dominant champions happen to be sisters, doubles partners, good friends and two young women who happen to live in the same family house.

If Venus and Serena were not sisters, these questions would never have been asked. And there may be just that thinly veiled element of racism here as well. For, in a sport that has for a long time been dominated by white women, the appearance of two all conquering African-Americans may not be the best thing to happen for television, or perhaps, even for commerce.

"Ah, Williams versus Williams, how boring." That might be a common reaction both from the media and sections of the tennis viewing public too.

Of course, such reactions are touched off, partly, by the fact that very few of the matches involving the sisters have risen to the occasion, although the Wimbledon final itself - especially the first half of it - was wonderfully competitive and threw up some top drawer stuff as Serena extended her streak of dominance over her sister to three straight matches this year.

"I thought I played high percentage tennis today. She just was pressing and hitting a lot of forceful shots," said Venus, who had won the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2000 and 2001.

The point is, whatever the sisters tell us, whatever we get to see on the court when the two compete against each other, the talk about the pair of champions "fixing" their contests will continue for some time to come. As well as this, the ridiculous theory that their hold on the women's game is bad for tennis will continue to dominate newspaper columns and television air time.

When asked what she had to say to the critics who floated these theories, Venus said, "I wouldn't respond. I think that we get a lot of attention for not just only women's tennis but tennis in general. People are watching tennis now."

How many of the people who "watch" tennis actually do so to watch 115mph serves and laser guided forehands and backhands that the Williams' come up with is another point.

For, in a sport where a young woman who has not won a single Tour title in her career - Anna Kournikova - has over $50 million in the bank, the attractions are not limited to the quality of tennis a player can come up with on the court.

If the 19-year old Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia is widely seen as Kournikova's big rival, it has nothing to do with the teenager's shotmaking brilliance - which, without a doubt, leaves her in a class higher than Kournikova, not to speak of her tremendous focus and willingness to work hard.

It has, of course, to do with Hantuchova's looks. It has to do with the fact that she has legs that can trigger a spot of jealousy in Julia Roberts or Naomi Campbell.

In the event, when people talk about the Williams sisters being "bad" for the game, you can understand why. For one thing, a pair of sisters taking on each other time after time in the major finals is not good news for the TV networks around the world. For another, it tends to blur the focus on the women from the continent (Europe) where the audiences are huge.

But from a purely sporting point of view, the theory that the Williams sisters are bad for the game is absolutely preposterous. Since the departure of Steffi Graf and the decline of Monica Seles, women's tennis has not seen a pair of players who can perform at such an exalted level of brilliance as the Williams sisters have done.

Their athleticism, shot making skills and competitive intensity are virtues that turn any sport into a marvellous spectacle. To say that they are bad for the sport is like saying Sachin Tendulkar is bad for cricket because he tends to dominate bowlers time and again.

Did anyone talk about boredom when Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert dominated the game? Or even when Steffi Graf and Monica Seles did? Did anyone complain about the monotony of having to watch the same two players feature in Grand Slam finals again and again? So why should it happen now merely because these two happen to be sisters? And even their athleticism and physical attributes are being held against them. How ridiculous!

Monica Seles, of course, is the one exception. The wonderful lady whose glory days were cut short by a madman, said that the sisters were not winning merely because of their height and power.

"Venus and Serena are not No. 1 and No. 2 because of their size. If that were the case, you could take any general Joe who is 6ft 2in and give him a racquet. They have pretty good tennis skills and they have improved a lot in the last couple of years."

But for every commendation, there are dozens of reactions triggered by jealousy and a sheer sense of helplessness in the face of excellence.

"You know, I have lost count of people who have said to me, 'We don't want a Williams final, whatever.' I think it is a little bit sad for women's tennis," said Amelie Mauresmo of France who was outplayed by Serena a day after she had beaten Jennifer Capriati in some style.

And Justine Henin, who lost to Venus in the semifinals this year - she was also beaten by Venus in last year's final - said: "You can see the sisters are the best two players in the world, but maybe the crowd would like to see different players in Grand Slam finals."

Maybe. But if the crowds want that, then the only way it can happen is for the Henins and the Mauresmos and the Capriatis and others to try and improve their own games to match the Williamses.

Says Martina Navratilova: "The others simply have to get better. The women will have to get in the gym, get on the track and be faster and stronger. You need someone who has variety, someone who can get into the net as well as play at the baseline."

In short, another Martina to challenge the sisters' hegemony. But there doesn't seem to be one in sight right now.