Once, Venus Williams played tennis as if nothing else mattered.
She walked like a queen and made competition personal. "You beat
my sister; I owed you," she told one vanquished opponent. Her
body language, her stare-downs and her screeching forehands were
so street that tennis had no idea how to deal with her. After she
won, the teenage Venus would break into a magnificent smile. She
would cockily flip her racket, catch it and hop to the net with
hair beads aswing.
That girl is gone. Last Thursday the 24-year-old Williams, seeded
third at Wimbledon, lost to a 30th-ranked Croatian teenager,
Karolina Sprem, 7-6, 7-6. It wasn't a bad loss, really; Sprem is
a talented basher who had little to lose, and she benefited from
the atrocious work of chair umpire Ted Watts. In the second-set
tiebreaker, Watts lost all notion of the score, the lines and the
basic rules of the game and gave Sprem a point she hadn't won. At
1-2, after Sprem's first serve was called wide, Watts changed the
score to 2-2 and then allowed Sprem to serve again to the ad
court. That got him fired from Wimbledon, but the biggest shock
was Venus's response. She did nothing. "I just felt maybe I had
lost track," she would say later.
Venus won the ensuing point to go up 3-2, and then she too served
to the ad court. Losing track of the score is not unheard of, but
playing three straight points from the same side of the court is
as bizarre as hitting a baseball and running to third base. "I'm
not an arguer," Venus would say, attempting to explain her
passivity. She went on to hold three set points but squandered
the last two with a double fault and a netted forehand volley.
She didn't show much concern then either.
More than most sports, pro tennis has its tone set at the top.
Injuries have sapped the women's tour this year, but just as
damaging has been the increasing disengagement of the game's two
dominant personalities. Serena Williams, considered the top
player despite her No. 10 ranking, is most animated when talking
about her acting jobs and dress designs. Venus has an
interior-design business on the side. The sisters'
well-roundedness is admirable, and their distraction--exacerbated
by injuries and the September murder of their sister Yetunde--is
all too human. But that doesn't alter its effect on the game.
Passion makes sports matter; passion turns fun and games into
serious business. Venus, as always these days, lost with class,
greeting Sprem at the net with a sweet smile. She hasn't won a
Grand Slam event in three years. If she doesn't care as much
anymore, why should anyone else?