Could it get any worse? Everything had already been taken from
Jennifer Capriati last Friday: Her will, her legs, her forehand.
Did she have to hear the laughing, too? Around the corner from
where she stood, near the players' lounge at the National Tennis
Center, that whole camp had gathered. Rapper Jay-Z. New York
Knicks star Allan Houston. Actress-singer Brandy. All those
friends and hangers-on, all packed together in the players'
lounge, shouting and chattering and ecstatic because Venus
Williams had just clubbed Capriati 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals of
the U.S. Open to set up a historic final match with her sister
Capriati had come to Flushing Meadow with so much to gain. She
could've left as the No. 1 player in the world; she could've
finally become the dominant force in women's tennis that
everyone once expected her to be. Now all that was gone.
Capriati stood with her back against a wall, eyes filled with
tears. "You're great," insisted her mother, Denise, stroking her
daughter's back. "You're Number 1 in my eyes."
An hour later Capriati stood outside the stadium in the dusk,
waiting for the car that would whisk her away. She was calmer
now, until the door to the players' lounge opened and Venus
emerged and a crowd of about 50 fans surged, cheering and
clapping and shouting her name. Capriati panicked. She screamed,
"Let's go!" jumped into the front seat of the car that had just
arrived and closed the window to shut out the noise. She tried to
be cool, looking straight ahead as Venus strolled by with her
mother, Oracene, and Serena. But then Capriati couldn't help
herself. Once, twice, three times, she looked over her shoulder,
watching Venus, watching the crowd that loved her, watching the
force that drives the sport like no other.
Along with Serena, Venus took what is usually tennis's most
chaotic and contentious Grand Slam event and consumed it like an
olive off a toothpick. Nothing that happened in New York over the
fortnight--not the rise of controversial 20-year-old men's champ
Lleyton Hewitt, not the boom and bust of 19-year-old Andy
Roddick, not even the stirring rebirth of Pete Sampras--could
retard the Williams express. After tearing through the women's
draw (Venus and Serena hammered No. 2 Capriati and No. 1 Martina
Hingis, respectively, in straight sets in the semis, combining
for 61 winners while their opponents had only nine), the
Williamses took Saturday's final to prime time for the first
time. With a choir singing and celebrities mugging, they brought
the women's final its best TV rating (7.7 overnight) in two
decades and provided America with a sloppy, tense spectacle that
proved enthralling on every level but the athletic.
"Hey, I wouldn't have missed it either if I knew something so
historic was going to happen," 19-year-old Serena said after
Venus, 21, beat her 6-2, 6-4. "I guess a lot of people want to
watch us. For me, it's really exciting because some of these
[celebrities] are really superstars. I didn't think that they
would want to watch little me play tennis."
Tennis is only the half of it. For the first time since 1884,
sisters had played each other in a Grand Slam final, and for the
first time, two ghetto-raised African-Americans have risen to the
pinnacle of prominence in a traditionally wealthy and white game.
"Tennis has come to a different level now--these girls have raised
the bar," said Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, the widow of Arthur Ashe,
after the match in the stadium named for her husband. "I feel
tonight the way I'll feel at my daughter's high school and
college graduations. Arthur would have liked to have been here
for them, because we're all beneficiaries. They've done a
Then, too, there's the Williams family, which, usually because
of the sisters' unpredictable father, Richard, has served as a
lightning rod for admiration and controversy. There has been
much talk about the family's insularity and cockiness, but it
was largely overlooked that at its moment of greatest triumph,
the Williams clan was breaking apart. Over the last year Venus
has successfully defended her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles and
solidified her place as the game's top player, while Serena, who
beat No. 8 Justine Henin, No. 3 Lindsay Davenport and Hingis
over the last two weeks, seems to have regained the form that
brought her the 1999 U.S. Open championship. The daughters
achieved all this despite the fact that Oracene and Richard have
been separated for more than a year. Oracene is intent on
getting a divorce--soon--and she's mulling over the best way to
push it through.
"Not yet," she said last Saturday night when asked if she had
filed for divorce. "Everything has to be done properly. Whenever
I feel it's the right time, I will."
Snapping pictures, and declaring his intention to draw cartoons
and write a book, Richard unrolled his usual crazy-uncle routine
at the Open. Before leaving the grounds and heading home to
Florida in the hours leading up to the women's final, he refused
to talk about the reason for the separation, but allegations of
spousal abuse appear to be part of it. On Feb. 7, 1999, Oracene
went to a hospital near the Williamses' home in Palm Beach
Gardens, Fla., for treatment of three broken ribs. After telling
investigators she had injured herself on a door handle, Oracene
told a deputy from the sheriff's office, "I know you know what
happened, but I am fearful for my daughters' careers."
When asked about the incident by SI last January, Williams family
lawyer Keven Davis said Richard had been out of town at the time
Oracene sustained the broken ribs. When SI asked Oracene in May
whether Richard had assaulted her, she said, "It happened. I
can't deny that. I would like to deny that, but I can't because
it's the truth."
At this year's Open, Oracene and Richard rarely came in contact
with each other. The two have agreed to work together on
decisions regarding their daughters' careers but, said Oracene
last Saturday, "that's it. It's so important for the girls, you
have to have that cohesiveness--and they have to believe that.
Otherwise they can be torn apart. I would not allow that."
Neither Serena nor Venus would comment on her parents' split, but
Oracene said it has affected them "even if they act like it
doesn't. They've been able to cope with it, but I know it hurts
them. They won't say anything, but I know. They've been able to
deal with it, and now they're going on."
On Saturday night the Williams sisters went on just fine. As in
their five previous meetings (Venus had won four), the play was
uninspired. There have been not-so-veiled suggestions that
Richard had predetermined the outcome of their matches, but after
Venus again dominated Serena, the reason for their lackluster
meetings appeared obvious. First, neither has faced a player with
anything resembling the speed and power of the other. Second,
Serena is intimidated by Venus, as if the idea of supplanting her
sister's place in the family pecking order is unthinkable. "I was
saying, 'Come on, Serena, just do this or do that,'" Venus said
after last Saturday's match. "When I'd find myself doing that,
I'd lose a couple points. When I lost a couple points, I wasn't
sorry [for her] anymore."
At the end Venus was merciless. Serving for the match at 5-4, she
bombed in a serve at 120 mph and then wore down Serena in a match
point rally for her fourth Grand Slam crown. The sisters hugged
at the net, and Venus told Serena, "I love you. I feel so bad. I
feel like I haven't won." Serena didn't want to hear it. Walking
toward the umpire's chair, she told Venus, "You did win. You're
the champion, you deserve it, don't feel that way."
When they addressed the crowd, Venus spoke so emotionally of how
much she loved Serena and wanted to look out for her that Serena
started crying. "She always goes extra--sometimes too
much--worrying about Serena," Serena said. "But she's got to
realize: I didn't win this time. Enjoy it, because it might be my
time next time."
That neither sister gives the rest of the field a chance in next
year's first Grand Slam tournament, January's Australian
Open--"We're the two players that nobody wants to play," says
Venus--is a Williams staple. That doesn't mean everyone has gotten
used to it. After winning his first-round match against Julien
Boutter at Flushing Meadow, Sampras, winner of 13 Grand Slam
titles and supposedly the sisters' idol, spotted Serena and her
new blonde braids as she passed in the hall under Ashe Stadium.
"Hey! Are those real?" Sampras asked. "Yeah," Serena said, barely
looking at him.
Sampras turned away. "Man," he said. "Arrogant."
Then again, Sampras hadn't seemed like anyone special lately.
Since winning Wimbledon 2000, he had gone 17 tournaments without
a title, gotten married, turned 30 and appeared only halfway
interested in his career. He came into this Open seeded 10th.
Then something strange happened. The tournament's decision to
expand its seeding this year from 16 to 32 proved disastrous. The
early matches were one-sided, and protected from having to
confront anyone who might upset them, many top-ranked players
entered the second week off form. Only Sampras benefited. Facing
a draw from hell that included every U.S. Open champion--Patrick
Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin--since he last won at
Flushing Meadow, in 1996, Sampras locked himself into the
tournament from the start. His serve resurfaced. In the Round of
16 he dispatched Rafter in four sets. Then came Agassi.
Over the last decade Sampras, the game's premier server, and
Agassi, the game's premier returner, had played 31 times to a
near dead heat. (Sampras led 17-14). However, on Sept. 5 the two
engaged in what may well be the closest a tennis match can come
to perfect. With Agassi serving nearly as well as he returns and
Sampras returning nearly as well as he serves, the two engaged in
a three-hour, 32-minute mutual headlock. Break points were as
rare as diamonds. Neither could dent the other's serve nor break
the other's will. Agassi made only 19 unforced errors; Sampras
smacked 80 winners. It came down to four tiebreakers, the
roulette wheel of tennis, and by the fourth one, all 23,031 fans
stood and cheered.
From that moment through the end of his 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6
victory over Agassi and beyond into his three-set dismantling of
Safin in the semis, Sampras felt the New York crowd behind him as
never before. As he walked out on Sunday for his match with
Hewitt, the spectators stood and showered him with applause.
Sampras knew it came because he was older, but it also seemed
that the fans at last had come to accept, even appreciate, his
boring demeanor. After 12 years they loved him on his terms.
"They finally get it," Sampras said.
Whether Hewitt gets it is another question. An Australian Davis
Cup stalwart, the No. 3 Hewitt proved scrappy and focused under
fire during the Open. After being criticized because of his
seemingly racist comment about the "similarity" between a black
line judge and his African-American opponent, James Blake, during
their second-round match, Hewitt tried to explain that he used
similarity to refer to the two foot faults called on him by the
linesman and not to the two men (SI, Sept. 10). Hewitt insisted
he meant nothing "racial," saying again after Sunday's final, "I
didn't mean any harm; I didn't mean to offend James in any way."
Maybe not, but it appears that race was an issue with Hewitt,
that he believed the linesman made his calls in solidarity with
Blake because of skin color. After Sunday's final, Kim Clijsters,
the No. 5 player in the world and Hewitt's girlfriend, said, "The
media blew it up. He was the one who got blamed for being a
racist, while he was sort of telling the umpire that the linesman
was being racist a little bit." Clijsters wouldn't say whether
that was her interpretation or Hewitt's explanation.
As the counterpunching Hewitt relentlessly battered Sampras on
Sunday with one dive-bomb pass after another to win 7-6, 6-1,
6-1, a weird pall hung over the place. Tennis's class act was
making way for the boy with a problem. The serve that had
carried Sampras dissolved. "I wish I had his legs," Sampras said.
At one point Hewitt lobbed a ball, and Sampras seemed to shrink
and stoop, not even bothering to watch it drop. A new generation
had grabbed hold of the game in a stadium named for Arthur Ashe.
Just the night before, in prime time, that had seemed like a
historic was going to happen," said Serena.
the worst of fire.