The legacy of Venus and Serena Williams

Thursday August 29th, 2013

Serena (left) and Venus Williams have won a total of 23 major singles titles, including six U.S. Opens.
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NEW YORK -- Legacy is one of those words that gets heavy rotation in sports. And especially here at the U.S. Open, where the grounds are named for Billie Jean King and the main stadium is dedicated for Arthur Ashe. Legacy, though, is one of those words that obstinately resists definition, no matter how hard we try.

Around the time when Venus and Serena Williams were batting tennis' Grand Slam titles back and forth as if in an extended rally, there was open speculation about their legacy. Would the sisters "inspire a generation"? Or were they akin to comets, burning brightly and then fading away, ultimately doing little to change the landscape?

This coincided with similar speculation in golf about a "Tiger effect." Much of it, of course, was code for a discussion about race. The question of legacy? It really meant this: Would the Williams sisters -- and, for that matter, Tiger Woods -- usher in a wave of African-American players, changing the composition of the field? Or would the sport continue looking pretty much the same?

The assumptions were shabby. The leaps in logic were significant. This was laid bare during Sloane Stephens' recent breakthrough. Stephens is African-American, ergo the Williams sisters must have motivated her. When Stephens beat Serena at the 2013 Australian Open, one ESPN commentator went so far as to marvel that Stephens had just upended "her hero." Not quite. We soon learned that Stephens' favorite player was neither Venus nor Serena but Kim Clijsters. In fact, Stephens made it clear that she didn't even much like Serena.

On the other hand, the sisters very much influenced some African-American players. Tennis darling du jour Victoria Duval, for instance, plays tennis in a dress designed by Venus. Sachia Vickery said Venus' advice helped her win her first-round match at the U.S. Open. Based largely on Serena's recommendation, Vickery trained at the Mouratoglou academy in Paris. It is the knee-jerk assumption, the reflexive link, that is offensive.

WERTHEIM: Duval the latest teen to create buzz at U.S. Open

But here's what's uglier still: The question of the Williams legacy seldom entertains the possibility that they inspire players who do not look like them. For years, up-and-comers on the men's tour have been asked about the impact of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. This isn't restricted to Swiss and Spanish juniors. It's everyone. "Your career coincides with two of the all-time greats. How did they impact you?" Seldom is a WTA player from outside the United States been given a similar line of inquiry about Serena, a 16-time major champion, or Venus, a seven-time Slam winner who is still a feared player going on two decades.

Be clear about this, though: Their mark is all over the sport. When Serena played her second-round match Thursday -- a 6-3, 6-0 domination of Galina Voskoboeva -- her colleagues stared at the television screens in players' lounges, whistling as Serena's winners strafed by her 77th-ranked opponent. Likewise, on Wednesday, players crowded around TVs in the locker room to watch Venus battle China's Zheng Jie to a third-set tiebreaker. Some rooted for Venus. Others were not displeased when she lost. But all those players, born in 1990s? Who wouldn't be inspired watching a former champion, now 33, still competing, and then defiantly brushing aside retirement questions?

What's the legacy of the Williams sisters? The cheap and easy answer is to credit them for the African-American players in the field, a subset that gets larger each year. The more nuanced answer: Their excellence and staying power have affected innumerable players on both tours. Some -- though not all -- share their race. Others don't. That's their legacy.


A follow-up regarding Federer's recent poor performances. The other great Swiss sportsman, Fabian Cancellara, is also 32, and this year he has decided not to enter the grand tours such as Giro and Tour de France, competing instead in only the races that suit his strength at the elderly end of his career as a pro cyclist. Does Federer have that kind of option? Cancellara is still highly respected even though he no longer participates in the glamour events.
-- M Ng, Vancouver

• Again, tennis is cruel here. There's no nuance. You win or you lose. You play or your don't. You can tailor the schedule a bit, but not much given how many events are mandatory. In Federer's case, technically he has hit the exemption thresholds and doesn't have to compete in Masters tournaments. But given the breakdown of ranking points, it would punish him severely and lead to tougher draws at Grand Slam tournaments. He may skip Miami or Canada, but he can't play a fully customized schedule without plummeting deep in the rankings.

Bottom line: For a player who is the highest embodiment of grace, Federer's ultimate feat/challenge might be fashioning a graceful exit strategy.

Why didn't Andy Murray, who opened his tournament on Wednesday night, play the men's match at night on Day 1? I thought that honor was given to the defending champ? If that's not the case, how does the tournament decide who plays first? Is it based on TV ratings or possibly a "courtesy" to give the aging Federer more time to recover?
-- Kris, Norwalk, Conn.

• It's a combination of decisions: television interests, the tournament's interest, what other top players with aggressive agents demand/request.

Are you really sure about Novak Djokovic surviving the tag team of Juan Martin del Potro and Murray to make the final? They beat him at Wimbledon, so what makes you think they can't pull it off in New York?
-- Jagjit Sahota, Fresno, Calif.

• Good point. And one that too often gets overlooked. Part of winning a Grand Slam title is excellence. But luck plays a role as well. Luck of the draw. Luck of the weather. Luck of the net cord (see: Becker, Boris, 1989 U.S. Open). Luck of the "tag team," as you put it. It's less the case now that Super Saturday has been mercifully euthanized and players have a day off between the semifinals and final. But so often a finalist has been run ragged in the semis, such as Djokovic by del Potro ahead of a final against Murray at Wimbledon this year, and this has no small bearing on the outcome.

Before we throw Ryan Harrison a pity party about getting a tough draw in the Slams, let's remember that to avoid that tough draw, you need to get a seed. In order to get a seed, you need a higher ranking, and the real players step it up at non-Slams to get the ranking up! If you look at his results over the past year, he's not only lost to the mid-level players at tour-level events but also to players outside the top 100 in quite a few Challengers. It seems to me that if he wants to control his draw more in Slams, he should start producing at the other events, too.
-- Justin DePietropaolo, Downingtown, Pa.

• Point taken. But if Harrison got a few easier draws, he'd be much better off empirically and, one suspects, have more confidence. Surely he sees Jack Sock, for instance, draw a qualifier in the first round (Philipp Petzschner) and a qualifier in the second round (Maximo Gonzalez) for the right to play the pedestrian Janko Tipsarevic in the third round and think, "Hey, where do I get one of those?"

I've noticed a few players take a sip from three or four different sports drinks/water during their changeovers. Any idea why? What's the advantage?
-- Dax Lowery, Fishers, Ind.

• I thought you were going to say that you saw players sip from their drinks in between points, which I've noticed on occasion. I suppose different drinks have different nutritional/replenishing purposes.

If Madrid gets the Olympics, does Rafael Nadal play through 2020?
-- @John Thrasher

• First, let's discuss this: Last summer in London, a high-ranking source told me that the 2020 Summer Olympics "are Istanbul's to lose." That no longer seems to be the case. If Madrid gets the games, can Nadal hang on another seven years? Given what we know about his knees, that's a grande ask. Say this: If he's no longer active, I can think of no better torchbearer.

Shots, miscellany

Good stuff from Murray in his first-round victory.

• A closer look at Jamie Hampton, who will face Stephens in the third round Friday.

• Here is the transcript of James Blake's news conference after the final singles match of his career.

• In case you missed it: Andy Roddick's recent interview with Federer.

• Jay of Portland: "How about separated at the hairdresser? Alex Bogomolov and David Nalbandian."

• Rose of St. Catherine, Jamaica, has long-lost siblings: Stephens and U.S. Olympic hurdler Dawn Harper.

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