Commentary

In awe of the Williams sisters

It's U.S. Open time, and the choice is obvious: Venus or Serena?

Originally Published: August 19, 2009
By Rick Reilly | ESPN The Magazine

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

This story appears in the Sept. 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

What if I told you about two white brothers from a trailer park on the tattooed side of the tracks? Their father decides -- against all logic -- to teach them a rich man's sport, golf, even though he's a complete chop himself. They become great on the weedy public courses, turn pro and dominate the sport. Just wipe the Tour up. Golf harrumphs in disbelief.

Then the two brothers grow disinterested with golf and get into motorcycle building. They nearly stop playing altogether.Then they grow disinterested with being disinterested and decide, What the hell, let's go thump again. So they crush all new saps, until it's obvious nearly every major is going to be won by one or the other.

Preposterous?

Well, change their color to black, their sex to female and their sport to tennis, and you have the Williams sisters, who now have 18 majors between them -- 11 for Serena and seven for Venus. Eighteen! If this were golf, Serena would be tied with Walter Hagen for third, and Venus would be tied with Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and others for seventh. From one family, one coach, one house in Compton. It's the single most underplayed story in American sports in the past 25 years. Where's their postage stamp?

Do you realize a Williams has six of the past 11 women's majors? That they've outlasted not one generation of rivals but two? Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati. All gone.

There has never been a sibling combo like this in American sports history. Baseball's DiMaggios, Waners, Alous? Not even close. Skiing's Mahres? No way. Football's Mannings? Please. One championship each?

It's the most underplayed story in sports.

The Williams sisters are bigger than sports. Their achievements rank with any set of sisters in American history, along with the Stillwells -- Revolutionary War heroines -- and the Andrews Sisters, the biggest American singing act in the 1940s. The only difference is the Williamses are in their second decade of greatness, going on a third.

The problem is deciding which one you want to have win the next major. It's no good just throwing your hands up and saying, "It's going to be a Williams." You have to pick one. You can't root for both the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Clintons and the Bushes, Coke and Pepsi. You have to choose: Venus or Serena. They're two entirely different people with entirely different personalities.

Venus is like grass courts, steady and calm. Serena is like hardcourts, slick and fast. Venus kills you with her forehand. Serena kills you with her backhand. Venus takes too few chances. Serena takes too many. When they screw up, Venus glares, Serena smiles.

Venus talks about nothing but tennis. Serena talks about anything but tennis. Serena will do 45 minutes on the TV show she's writing or her book that's coming out (On the Line, in September) or her last Twitter tweet. To wind Venus up, ask her about equal prize money.

As kids, Venus was the one you let babysit. Serena was the one you got babysat. They're still like that. Venus is 29 going on 40. Serena is 27 going on 18. Once, at Wimbledon, when Serena was confused about what to do in front of royalty, Venus whispered into her ear, "Curtsy."

Venus keeps most of it in, and Serena lets most of it out. Or don't you remember those swimsuit pictures? Venus is a reader. Serena is a reality-TV freak. Venus dates a golfer, Hank Kuehne. Serena dates a rapper, Common. Are there two more opposite dates?

They're both fashionistas, but Serena likes to push it: the Lycra catsuit, the denim skirts with boots, the white trench coat. And that's just stuff she's worn on the court.

Serena's the better player, but that's like saying Paris is the richer Hilton. They're both a NASA space launch past everybody else right now. Their only legit competition is the Russians, and lately the sisters have made them look like weekend coaches at the Moscow Country Club.

Go ahead. Take your time picking your Williams. Thanks to their dad's brilliant long-term coaching strategy -- and their desire to step back from tennis to study fashion and acting -- their minds and legs are fresh. They're not burned-out (Capriati, Hingis, Henin), and they're not worn-out (Rafael Nadal). They plan on kicking booty through the 2012 Olympics and maybe, they say, clear through the 2016 Games.

But if somebody doesn't throw them a ticker-tape parade pretty soon, I'm running for Congress.


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