Tennis better with successful Williams sisters

Updated: January 23, 2006, 2:46 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

So the question, naturally, is whether the Williams sisters are really done with tennis this time.

And the answers are:

1) You mean, as opposed to every other time one or the other woman was assumed to be ready to ditch the sport in favor of the vast world of nonspecific celebrity?

and

2) All together, now: Let's hope not.

Tennis is so much more interesting with the Williamses in it, and if you doubt that, consider the wind that abandoned the sails of the Australian Open this week when first Venus, then Serena made an unceremonious exit in the early rounds.

The defeats were troubling for different reasons, but not least of all because they both suggested a sort of semi-dabbling in the sport for the Williamses. Venus, bounced by Bulgarian Tszvetana Pironkova (that's right, I said it) in the first round, hadn't played a competitive match since early fall. Serena's third-round defeat, at the hands of Daniela Hantuchova, wasn't so much a titanic upset as it was confirmation that Serena just isn't fully into it right now.

Venus (left) and Serena Williams
Stuart Hannagan/Getty ImagesVenus Williams (left) lost in the first round of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2001, while Serena has not advanced past the fourth round in the last three majors.
Just this time a year ago, Serena was winning the Aussie and essentially re-establishing herself as the greater heir to her sister's place in the tennis pantheon. As Venus' game and interest appeared to wax and wane (waxing highest with the title at Wimbledon), Serena took her intensity and conditioning up a notch. It was as if she would get on top of the tennis world by simply wanting to and committing to the idea.

Now? Not so much. Serena hasn't made it past the fourth round at a major since winning in Melbourne in 2005, and she really looked this week like a player who wasn't ready to go -- a little slow, a little heavy, a little unfocused. She's just not there.

That's not such a shock, actually; it's more that the world outside hard-core tennis fandom is just now catching on to Serena's diminished vigor for the sport. She rightfully was assigned just a 13-seed for the Australian despite being the defending champ, and Hantuchova, at No. 17, didn't constitute a wild surprise as the winner Friday. Serena's overall ranking in the tennis computer system most likely will drop into the 30s, possibly even lower.

But that's the smaller picture. The larger view is the one without the Williams sisters in it, and that's a bleak view indeed.

I don't know what possesses either Venus or Serena to get inspired about tennis, but the sport almost always benefits from that inspiration. These are not only two of the most visible figures in the industry but two of the most fun to watch, to follow and to gossip about. From fashion sense to shopping habits, from fatherly involvement to deep, powerful groundstrokes and closers' mentalities, the Williamses make for great dish -- and sport, on the national and international levels, does not exist without dish.

Also, there's this sort of sense of incompletion with both when it comes to their tennis careers. You are constantly left wondering what either woman might have achieved in the sport had it fully commanded her attention and passion for more than, say, 12 months at a stretch.

Between them, they carry 12 Grand Slam singles titles and almost $30 million in career earnings just in sanctioned tour money. When they're on their games, they're both incredibly fun to watch. Venus is all range and reach, while Serena runs opponents off the court with her power. Even as it became apparent over the years that Serena was the one with the more merciless kind of killer instinct as a match player, there were those who would rather watch Venus' flowing style of play.

But you always knew not to count on that flow, on that power. You learned a while back that the Williams you saw on the court this month might not be seen again for months. It depended on other things, maybe -- on outside interests or simple boredom with just playing the game. Neither woman ever did make a lasting peace with the single-minded demands of the truly elite athlete.

What that means, in the end, is that they'll both probably wind up being more fully rounded citizens of the planet than they would have otherwise. They might know more things, or they might simply have fun doing other stuff.

The one thing they won't ever be, it now appears clear, is the tennis titans they might have been. You can argue the merits of those decisions all day long as long as everyone agrees with the obvious: The sport sure could have embraced those titans.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

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