Serena and Venus Williams were leaving Roland Garros one day
last week after winning their matches at the French Open.
Sitting in the back of a courtesy car on the way to their hotel
off the Champs-Elysees, they playfully asked if they could take
the wheel of the Peugeot. The chauffeur declined, but who could
blame the sisters for asking? They are, after all, driving
everything else--attendance, television ratings, general
interest--in tennis. This was only reinforced in Paris. In a
match that surely made Jean-Marie Le Pen choke on his escargots
(Two African-American women in the final? Sacre bleu!), Serena
beat Venus 7-5, 6-3 last Saturday to win the women's title, the
second major of her career. As always in their encounters, it
was a carnival of unforced errors, an awkward, arrhythmic,
anticlimactic affair. But that didn't much matter. Les soeurs
Williams were the twin toasts of the tournament.
In reaching the final Venus and Serena fulfilled their father's
longtime divination and achieved the No. 1 and No. 2 world
rankings, respectively. It's fitting that sisters who are so
close that they share a South Florida mansion also share a
penthouse atop the rankings. Try to name another
profession--golf, neurosurgery, playing the glockenspiel--in
which the top two practitioners in the world are siblings.
"History," says Serena, "is definitely being made."
Yet the Williamses have entered a new phase. The beads are gone.
Their dresses and tresses no longer have much shock value. Their
pot-stirring father, Richard, is, mercifully, less and less of a
presence. ("He's in the States, where he belongs," his estranged
wife, Oracene, said last week.) The novelty appeal has faded.
Instead, the sisters are perceived--and they perceive
themselves--first and foremost as tennis players, a grim reality
for the rest of the field.
In Paris they ripped through the draw like tornadoes through a
trailer park. Both have games built on power, but they
complemented their force with depth and leavened it with
feathery touch shots and clever angles. Even established players
such as Monica Seles and the resurgent Mary Pierce could offer
only scant resistance. There were, however, a few pratfalls
along the way to the finals. Serena lost the first set of her
fourth-round match to Vera Zvonareva, a 17-year-old qualifier
from Russia, but that served only to make her angry, and she ran
off 12 of the next 13 games. Serena was also down a set to
Jennifer Capriati in their thunderbolt-hurling semifinal but
rallied to win 3-6, 7-6, 6-2.
Venus, meanwhile, was hardly in danger of exceeding the Gallic
35-hour workweek, taking every set she played until the final.
In the semis she was fortunate to draw 87th-ranked Clarisa
Fernandez, a waifish Argentine who was the surprise of the
tournament. After getting (red) dusted 6-1, 6-4 in 56 minutes,
Fernandez shook her head and muttered to her coach, "La fuerza.
La fuerza [The power. The power]."
And to think, this was on clay, a surface that allegedly
neutralizes pace and demands baseline consistency, never a
Williams strong suit. In fact, before this year neither sister
had made it past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. But what
the Williamses lose in consistency they make up for with their
speed and athleticism, retrieving balls that no other players
can reach. Besides, they were nursed on Har-Tru, the claylike
surface on courts they played on in Florida, where they lived
and trained as juniors--another keen piece of foresight by
Williams pere. "Coming in, people may have thought that this was
our worst surface," says Serena, "but I think we showed that we
can play as well on clay as on anything else."
That's not all they revealed. The longstanding rap on the
sisters was that they are arrogance personified. During the
tournament there were abundant examples of their
hyperconfidence, including Serena's speculation, after her
second-round win, about which dress she would wear in the final.
But the sisters showed plenty of humility as well. Like Oracene,
who sat in the stands applauding opponents' winners as lustily
as she did her daughters', Venus and Serena were the pictures of
decorum on the court. No swearing. No protracted debates over
lines calls. No racket chucking. "They know it's just a
sport--that's the way they see it," says Oracene. "Just go out
and have fun."
It can still be as hard to get a handle on the sisters'
personalities as it is to read their 120-mph serves. When they
spoke last week of their manifold interests--in fashion,
interior design and foreign languages ("I love all the arts, and
I love administration too," Venus said cryptically)--one was
never quite sure what was fact and what was fiction. But in
tennis, merely claiming to have a life outside the sport is
The sisters' comportment contrasted sharply with that of
Capriati, the defending champion. Earlier this spring Capriati
was dismissed from the U.S. Federation Cup team after she
violated team practice rules and unleashed a profane tirade at
captain Billie Jean King. In Paris, Bud Collins, tennis's doyen,
and Chris Evert, Capriati's onetime mentor, had the audacity to
criticize the outburst during an NBC telecast. The Capriati camp
promptly sent word that both commentators were banned from
interviewing Jennifer, even if she were to defend her title.
Strangely dour throughout the tournament, Capriati also ripped
the WTA tour's ranking system, which would have made Venus No. 1
even if Capriati, who won the Australian Open in January, also
won the French. ("If you're looking at it mathematically,"
Serena riposted, "it makes a lot of sense." Ouch, bebe.) After
Capriati's semifinal shootout with Serena, which dropped
Capriati to No. 3, Serena paused near her at the net and leaned
in to exchange Euro kisses and sweet nothings. Capriati kept
walking. Following the match Capriati was asked whether it might
have taken longer for the Williams sisters to reach their top
rankings were Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis not out with
injuries. "Taken longer?" Capriati sniffed. "I don't know if it
would ever happen at all."
She couldn't have been more wrong. Venus, for starters, has won
the last two Wimbledons and U.S. Opens. And had the Williams
sisters played as many tournaments as the other top women, they
most likely would have been Nos. 1 and 2 much earlier. What's
more, Capriati, Davenport and Belgium's Kim Clijsters--the three
players best able to match the sisters' power--have combined to
beat the Williamses just once in their last 13 encounters.
"Right now they're clearly dominating," says Nathalie Tauziat, a
Top 10 player last year who's now a commentator for French TV.
"The scary thing is, they're just starting to enter their prime
If the Williamses are threatening to Tigerize women's tennis,
the men's game suffers the opposite fate: unremitting parity.
Say, what happened to Switzerland's Roger Federer, the supposed
breakout star, who won the big tune-up in Hamburg and whose
likeness was splayed on a gigantic billboard outside the French
Open grounds? He couldn't manage a set in his first-round match
against Morocco's flashy Hicham Arazi. Whither Aussie Lleyton
Hewitt, the top-ranked ATP player? He lost in the fourth round
and left Roland Garros to jeers for having decapitated courtside
geraniums with his racket. What of Sweden's Thomas Johansson,
who won the Australian Open? Out in round 2. As for Russia's
Marat Safin, the handsome, personable all-surface star, he lost
in the semis and then asserted that "it's not a big deal" if he
never wins another Grand Slam event.
The men's champion in Paris, Spain's Albert Costa, played
classic dirtball tennis, outhustling countryman Juan Carlos
Ferrero in a four-set final. In so doing he became the eighth
male player to win a title in the last eight Grand Slam events.
"Everybody can beat anybody," says Safin.
While this makes for highly competitive matches, it's hard for
the ATP to market and promote players who are not consistent
winners. Small wonder, then, that the men's tour has been making
overtures to the WTA, inviting the women's tour to relocate its
offices from St. Petersburg to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where
the men are headquartered, and looking into the possibility of
holding more joint events. This interest in joining forces with
the women's game--unimaginable five years ago--has been glossed
over with corporate-speak such as "building synergies,"
"creating efficiencies" and "integrating resources." But it
boils down to this: 32-year-old Andre Agassi won't be around
much longer, and no other male player comes close to the
international star wattage of the Williamses. Why not try to get
in on the action? Says Kevin Wulff, the WTA tour's CEO,
"[Courting the women] is the smart thing to do, and they realize
There's one glitch in the women's game, however, one that even
Richard Williams probably didn't envision. For any number of
reasons--the sisters' familiarity with each other's games, their
similarity in style, their emotional bond, their sharing of a
coach--matches between Serena and Venus have, invariably, been
stinkers. The sisters may be the New York Yankees of tennis, a
dominant force amassing championships in bulk, but their finals
against each other feel more like split-squad games than a World
Series. Plus, given that they'll be on opposite sides of the
draw by virtue of their rankings, the Williams-Williams final
will surely become more common.
On Saturday the capacity crowd at Roland Garros was restrained
throughout both sets, unsure whether to back one sister at the
expense of the other, aghast at the mis-hits that landed in a
different arrondissement from the court. The fans saved their
loudest applause and displays of emotion for the trophy
ceremony. The sisters won over the Parisians by delivering part
of their addresses en francais. Then, as Serena held the Coupe
Suzanne Lenglen aloft, her older sister took hold of a Nikon SLR
camera and began taking snapshots.
Watching them charm the crowd on one of tennis's grandest
stages, one couldn't help marveling at how far they've come from
the pocked blacktop courts of Compton, Calif., where they first
learned to belt a tennis ball and were imbued with their
us-against-the-world attitude. More than a decade later, they
hit their strokes more ferociously than ever, and "us" is
winning in a romp.
together have been stinkers.