The return of the Williams sisters?
It wasn't a Grand Slam title like Serena won, but Venus Williams joined her younger sister in the winner's circle. Now, as Bonnie DeSimone writes, Serena and Venus Williams are the highest-ranked players on tour.It wasn't a Grand Slam title like Serena won, but Venus Williams joined her younger sister in the winner's circle. Now, as Bonnie DeSimone writes, Serena and Venus Williams are the highest-ranked players on tour.
She did it on a smaller stage, beating lower-ranked players. But Venus Williams' tournament win in Memphis -- almost exactly a month after sister Serena's sublime victory at the Australian Open -- nonetheless sounded a secondary trumpet blast that went something like this:
Dah-da-da-da, da-dah, CHARGE!
The Williams sisters, suddenly and somehow unsurprisingly, are the two highest-ranked American women players on the WTA Tour this week. Serena remains at No. 15; Venus forged up to No. 38.
Venus' path to the Memphis title took her through a wild card, a qualifier and two players ranked in the 60s before she met 17th-ranked Shahar Peer of Israel, who gave Serena fits in the Aussie quarterfinals but bowed out meekly to Venus, winning only two games in a 68-minute rout.
Not that Venus, playing only her second tournament since Wimbledon last June because of a chronic left wrist injury, looked like a world-beater throughout. Akiko Morigami pushed her to a third set in her opening match as Venus lost her serve three times in the second set and double-faulted eight times in the match. Caroline Wozniacki had her down 4-2 in the first set of the second round. Laura Granville forced Venus to a first-set tiebreak.
Like Serena in Melbourne, Venus appeared to improve visibly with each match. "I really have nothing to prove," she said in comments reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "I feel like I understand what I have to do, myself, as far as my talent. I understand how hard I've worked. And I think time and again, Serena and I have, when we've come back from injury, we've come back just as good, if not better."
It has been three years since the sisters won events in such close proximity (spring of 2004, when Serena won at Key Biscayne and Venus shortly afterwards at Charleston) and longer than that since their last period of sustained, overlapping excellence.
Venus and Serena missed last season essentially in tandem. The collective and often impatient conversation about their future tennis intentions that swirled around them was laced with a sense that their disinterest was joined at the hip, one influencing the other's choices.
We'll never know the truth of that, just as it's impossible to know how much they're egging each other on now in a mission to give tennis a big I-told-you-so. The skeptics are sure to weigh in with killjoy chit-chat about how long this push can and will last. Others will imply that the competition must not be too stiff if the sisters can waltz in and start winning after such a long layoff.
Neither analysis would give credit where credit is due. It's simply hard to come back after a long time away, no matter what the reason. It's hard to come back when, as Venus noted, you have a lengthy list of achievements already. It's hard to come back when you have other business interests calling.
Most of all, it must be hard to come back and ignore the fact that a big chunk of your audience -- whether positive or negatively inclined -- never will be satisfied no matter how long or why you stick around this time.
Why not suspend judgment and enjoy this rather fascinating dynamic? Shouldn't fans be licking their chops at the prospect of seeing how the current top-10 players react if the sisters keep playing well?
That would part the curtains for cowgirl-up time. Can Maria Sharapova rebound from Serena's clinical dissection in Australia? Will Amelie Mauresmo, who won two Slams last year, be able to overcome her historic deficit to both sisters? Could all-court craft do the same for Justine Henin, a combined 4-12 to the Williamses? Can young players like Nicole Vaidisova and Jelena Jankovic, who don't have much backstory with the siblings, cope with the intimidation factor the Williamses rightly carry back like an invisible medal pinned to their dresses?
The Williamses are skipping Indian Wells, as they have since the conflagration in 2001 when Venus defaulted shortly before her semifinal match to Serena, then triggered a hailstorm of jeering and booing at the stadium when she and her father came to watch her sister play (and win) the final. The sibs are next slated to play in Key Biscayne, Fla., a tournament they won six times in seven years -- neatly splitting the spoils at three apiece -- from 1998 to 2004.
Then comes a somewhat anticlimactic Fed Cup weekend in late April, where they've both said they will play against Belgium. Unfortunately, neither of that country's top-10 players, Henin (divorce) and Kim Clijsters [marriage] plan to show up.
Obscure Williams stat of the week: Venus Williams has entered only five Tier III tournaments on the WTA Tour in her career. However, when she plays them, she slays them. With her Memphis win, Venus is now a perfect 23-0 in matches at that level.
Returning the favor: Much of the scrutiny of Andy Roddick's more diverse game has focused on his play at the net. Yet in the last six months, he's quietly upgraded his return of service as well.
"I think that goes along with confidence," Roddick said earlier this month in San Jose. "When I'm confident, I've returned OK and been able to get my breaks. That being said, my positioning has changed a little bit [and is] a little more aggressive. I used to stand back.
"I think I play kind of opposite even than when I was number one. It was a necessary adjustment, a little bit of a compete overhaul on the run for lack of a better term. It's still a work in progress, but I feel like it's improving."
Players with serves as powerful as Roddick's sometimes tend to treat their return game with benign neglect, the way great pitchers don't spend a lot of time in the batting cage. But just as a pitcher helps himself by occasionally getting on base, a big server can boost his own cause by pressuring the very first shot, putting his opponent back on his heels or at least preventing him from jumping on the ball.
Sometimes the other player simply doesn't allow that to happen. Tommy Haas was literally untouchable in Memphis, where he beat Roddick in the final last weekend, and didn't face a break point in any of his matches.
As Roddick has stepped up his efforts to find openings and create something off a return, "It's more of a mind-set change than a technical change," his brother and co-coach, John Roddick, told ESPN.com.
"It doesn't feel good to try to do damage off a first serve. When you miss it a few times or you get aced, it gets frustrating. You just want to try to poke it in play and hope the guy misses.
"A lot of times before, Andy would just try to make returns, and then run around and figure out a way to win a point. Now he's doing a little bit more with the returns. If he misses 'em, he misses 'em."
Andy Roddick's other coach, Jimmy Connors, had one of the best returns of all time, and his input has helped Andy with the shift, John said.
"You'll see [Andy] sometimes now, he'll make a return but it'll be short, and he'll get on himself about it because a short ball doesn't scare anybody," John Roddick said. "That's what Roger [Federer] does so well. He doesn't necessarily hit it that hard all the time but he's just so precise with getting it back all the time, making the guy take a step back after his serve."
Coming into this week, Federer, one of the most effective, consistent returners in the game, was winning 38 percent of the points off his opponents' first serves to Roddick's 23 percent. [Federer had played seven matches at the time, Roddick 15.] The gap is smaller on second serves, where Roddick had won 50 percent of the points to Federer's 61 percent.
"Andy's not going to chip as many, he's going to try to hit over it a little more, but I think that's the difference between a one-hander [backhand, used by Federer] and a two-hander, too," John Roddick said. "On the one-hand, it's harder to move the grip around, so you end up having to do that hard chip."
Andy Roddick's longtime pal Mardy Fish said he understands the challenge.
"You can't have everything," Fish said. "You can't have the fastest serve ever in tennis and then have great returns. Andy breaks a lot, he's got a great ground-stroke game and a huge forehand. It's asking a lot to say, why isn't he a [Patrick] Rafter-type volleyer, why doesn't he have the backhand of [Marat] Safin? Guys have weaknesses.
"He's got good hands. Maybe he's applying them more, maybe Jimmy has given him something to think about on the returns, maybe he's concentrating more on the return games. Sometimes when you get in the swing of serving well and holding all the time, you say, 'Let's just hold every time, and eventually you're going to get chances to break.'"
Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.
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