Venus and Serena Williams have been working the same shift lately, half-of-the-draw as it is called at their job, which is to play tennis at the U.S. Open Championships at Flushing Meadows, Queens, the great northeastern borough of New York City near La Guardia Airport.
The men’s and women’s draws each begin with 128 players, divided in sections, with matches scheduled on alternate days; this also gives the athletes a bit of rest-and-recover time over the tournament fortnight, though many also compete in gender-specific and mixed doubles, adding to their workload. By the luck of the draw, the two sisters find themselves in the same section and if they keep winning rounds they are bound to meet on court prior to the semifinals.
This became headline news when they went to work on Sunday and made it short. They played back to back matches in the 20,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, architectural center piece of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in the park on the other side of the tracks from where the New York Mets play baseball.
Under ordinary circumstances, this should mean three, maybe four hours of top women’s tennis, for even when players are, on paper, mismatched, you are still talking about a contest between two of the top hundred or so in the world.
In fact, at 35 and 33 years, and after dreadful health scares, the sisters play as well as ever, and Serena enjoys a fantastic streak. They are, in this regard, quite like the immortal Pancho Gonzalez of some years back, playing into his 40s, or, today’s maestro, Roger Federer, at 34 totally in command and even money to win it all here (including the $3.3 million winner’s check). Tennis, they say, is a life sport. Well, it looks that way.
The grounds and the conditions at the U.S. Open are so gorgeous it is difficult to conceive why they are in the midst of a half-billion dollar upgrade. The most likely reason is that the place is packed, though well enough managed to not feel uncomfortably so. The Open makes a large amount of money for the USTA and it is a New York institution, so, this being New York and America, you make it even better. This is how top tennis players think of themselves and their lives, too.
The weather, moreover, has been extremely pleasant, if you like heat and humidity. The stunning last days of summer did take a toll during the first week in heat attacks during lengthy matches, but it got a little cooler over the weekend. Watch a top sporting event for a few hours and then it is time to have a drink on a nearby terrace, discuss with a fellow from Italy or Japan how the world should come together in places like this instead of clashing on fields of hate.
Venus, in fact, made exactly this point some years ago, saying athletes were ambassadors of peace in a world of war and woe. She probably said it more than once, but it made the most news on the occasion of an Arab policy of denying an Israeli athlete, Shahar Peer, a chance to compete in a tournament in Dubai. Serena won the tournament, told the assembled dignitaries at the award ceremony they stank, in slightly more polite words, and, with the threat of a players’ boycott led by the American champion Andy Roddick, the organizers relented, inviting Peer the next year. They more or less segregated her, out of concerns for her own security that, in truth, were not without basis.
The thought of connecting sporting events to goodwill and the progress of civilized behavior worldwide occurs regularly. It was one of the animating ideas of Baron de Coubertin, inventor of the modern Olympic Games, which kicked off just a few years prior to World War I. Queens officials count over a hundred languages among their 750,000 residents, and 44 countries find representation at the Open, even Belgium.
Venus was up against a young lady from Estonia, a country near Finland more than a bit nervous these days about its neighbor, Russia. Her name is Anett Kontaveit, and, at 20, she ranks 152 (some entrants outside the world’s top 128 earn a place in the draw at a qualifying tournament), and she did well in the first two rounds, getting past known, superior players.
The match was over in 25 minutes, but Estonian-American relations are fine.
International relations are not on anyone’s mind at the Open, which is probably one reason why the mood is so pleasant, the other being that the USTA runs the event (which it owns) with the kind of laid-back manner, friendly attitude, and scientific efficiency that you find in many walks of American life, though not foreign policy management. This may not be our fault because we cannot control the behavior of the other in the two-to-tango nature of that field. And you never know what they are really up to. It is probably safe to assume whatever it is not good, for us at any rate.
In tennis, your opposite number tries to control you and you try to control him, or her, and after it ends you remain pals. The key idea in tennis is to “dictate the point,” the point being each time the ball is in play, and the Williams sisters both have taken this to such a high level that they are by common consensus the best of the field and have been, in round numbers, since 2000, and will stay there as long as they stay healthy. That does not mean they win all the time, but they win more often than they lose. The other day, Venus beat Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, who at No. 12 is ranked higher than Venus’s current 23, in two sets. Venus Williams really is the better player, but Miss Bencic beat Serena in Toronto at the de-facto Canada Open, known as the Rogers Cup, a few weeks ago, and she is indeed a rising power. She also set off a round of speculation regarding the chances of someone – but who? – stopping her at the Open.
Miss Bencic did not let the hype get to her and went on to take the Rogers by beating Simona Halep, world No. 2, in the final. Venus, who suffers from a debilitating chronic affliction, has on and off days not entirely predictable, sort of like international relations. Against Bencic, her serve, the biggest on the women’s tour along with her sister’s, and her ground strokes, proved too much.
With Venus facing only an inexperienced qualifier in the next round, it suddenly became conceivable that soon the siblings would be meeting, as was common in their early years when they beat everybody and inevitably got in each other’s path. But Serena had to beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands, an old friend and about the same age, and the explosive 20-year old Madison Keys, who is given even money on inheriting Serena’s mantle, if ever she relinquishes it.
The match against Keys, right after Williams-Kontaveit, was much anticipated, because Mattek-Sands had given Serena a very hard time, taking the first set and meeting her game-for game-through much of the second. Mrs. Mattek-Sands, who dresses in funky outfits and dyes her hair orange, stands in sharp contrast to the sisters with their stately bearings and the outfits of their own design that, while certainly innovative and sometimes quite daring, maintain a primarily elegant, ladylike theme. But Bethanie, ranked about a hundred but because she was out of action last year following hip surgery, plays a fierce game. She charges the net with outrageous courage and has the reflexes of an infielder. She is one of the top doubles players in the world; she and her partner won this year at the Australian and French Opens and advance toward another trophy here.
It was definitely a ball game until the third set, when an exhausted Mattek-Sands all but conceded, unable to win a single game. But she had underscored that you can take a set from the master, or mistress rather, if you attack. This is not news, certainly not to Serena, who does not believe the hype about her.
Mattek-Sands did what you have to do, attack. And Serena did what she does best, also attack. If you try to play baseline defense, she will play better baseline defense and in short order find a way to take you to one side of the court and then hit the ball to the other side before you have time to shift your feet – and tennis players have very fast feet. It is in their nature, enhanced by training.
So, of course, Madison came on as strong as possible. Miss Keys may be only 20, but Serena was only on the cusp of 18 when she won her first U.S. Open, in 1999 (Venus was scarcely older when she won her first championship here in 2000, defending it successfully the next year.). Keys has a gorgeous form that, in fact, is somewhat akin to Venus’s, like her using to advantage a graceful long-limbed body and an unerring eye for the long shot to the corner.
Serena, however, can do this too. She hits with more pace (velocity) than probably anyone else on the women’s tour and while Madison can answer her shot-for-shot, she almost invariably lost the longer rallies from the baseline with a slight mistake of arm or foot movement, catching the ball just enough off to send it long or out of bounds. Pressure, experience – it was a solid match but there was never any serious doubt that, applying increased pressure when needed, as with an ace or a sharp cross court return shot, Serena would break Madison’s service in due course and hold her own, which is exactly what happened.
Miss Keys will learn, she certainly has the talent and, by all evidence, the hunger. But in the meantime Serena will keep winning, with the inevitable rare slip-up against someone almost but not quite as good as her, such as Belinda Bencic.
Or her big sister. Venus, a couple of years older, always has had the reputation of being protective and motherly toward the family baby (they have several older sisters and extremely protective parents), but this is a simplification of a relationship that inevitably has evolved as they have grown and matured. They love each other with a great, freely expressed passion that characterizes the Williams family. They do not give an inch on the court, neither to any other player nor to each other.
The competitive fury is arguably the Williams’ most characteristically American trait. Legend has it that Richard Williams saw a match on television and was so enchanted by the check presented to the winner that he decided to make tennis number ones of his youngest daughters. The reality is somewhat more nuanced—man of the deep South, he came north and married a teacher and tennis coach from Michigan—but the point is well taken: he said not: “How can anyone do this?” He said: “Why not us?”
In a sense, Richard Williams is the Booker T. Washington of tennis. An examination of the history of tennis among black Americans would show that this is the default “type” among black tennis teachers and coaches. It would aptly describe, for example, the near-mythical Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, sometime coach of Althea Gibson and responsible, with Arthur Ashe, Sr., for making Arthur Ashe the champion in sports and in life that he was.
But the real point here is that the Booker T. Washington model characterizes all good tennis teachers. You need a lot of help to master tennis’s technical difficulties, but someone must instill in you the idea that you will not get anywhere unless striving becomes integral to your being. Richard Williams is a classic case of the Negro striver, in the old idiom, therefore of the American striver.
In 2012, Serena, having recovered from a serious foot injury and a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, lost in the first round at the French Open. At this point, with 13 Grand Slam titles and 41 on the WTA tour, she could have thought enough’s enough. She was wealthy, she had other interests; in contrast with many tennis players (but this is part of the striver personality) the Williams sisters exude a thirst for education and enterprise; they have launched businesses, invested in others (including pro football), acquired degrees. They are active philanthropists.
However, she met a former French professional player running a teaching academy like the ones in Florida out of which many of today’s top players emerge (she and her sister were enrolled in one for a time). Patrick Moratouglou offered his coaching services and today, three years later, she owns 28 more WTA titles and eight more Grand Slams, including the last four. If she defends her title here, she will by definition have five in a row but, crucially, the last four will be in the same calendar year. No woman—no tennis player—has done this since Steffi Graff in 1988 and, overall, it has been done only three times in the Open era, twice by women, Graf and Margaret Court, and once by a man, Rod Laver.
Moratouglou is not the most popular person in French tennis, and some of his friends and formal rivals remark somewhat meanly that, after all, what is so extraordinary about helping a legend add to her legend?
But this misses the point. Serena had, in fact, almost died, and her sister had been extremely ill. (A non tennis sister was shot to death in a robbery.). Even champions have normal human feelings, physical and emotional evolutions.
Both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic by all accounts benefited hugely when they brought in new coaches during periods when observers thought they might be going down, and they have improved, being, in fact, the first two seeds here with about equal chances to win.
Something happened. And still, it is indisputable that it would not have, had she not wanted it. Serena Williams has a will to win that is the biggest single reason for the widespread admiration she evokes among fellow players. Both Mattek-Sands and Keys immediately expressed the hope she would go all the way after losing to her, without a note of sycophancy.
It is also probably the reason she has been embraced by a large public that does not really care much about tennis. The U.S. Open, the biggest-grossing event in the New York sports calendar, sells out even more when Serena plays on the court. She has, certainly, encouraged young Americans to play more tennis, though not as much as the USTA and high school and colleges coaches would like, but beyond this, she has made tennis popular and, in the black community, cool. “The hip hop culture adopted her,” observes Lynette Bishop, a USTA staffer.
Exactly what this means may be debatable. Ashe, in his time, had no patience for low-class (not the working class, from which he came) mannerisms, wherever they were expressed. He was a civil rights activist, sharply aware of the price paid for our race history; but he understood America as a biracial country, not one that sets groups and tribes against one another. He urged black athletes to complete their educations, as he did. He served in uniform and on corporate boards.
Due to the way they were coached, on the margins of the USTA organization, and to the outspokenness of their father when they were very young players on the Tour, Serena and Venus have been represented at times as having racial chips on their shoulders. Why should this be remarkable, given American history? The question is which matters more, the chip or the shoulder.
Donald Young, a young (miod-20s) prodigy from Chicago who has been having a sensational run here, twice winning against higher=ranked players after trailing two set to love, observed of Serena Williams, “She’s a beast. I think she turns it [the heightened competitiveness] on whenever she wants to.… The way she’s handling [pressure] is like a true champion. I have nothing by admiration and respect”
This is also Serena’s view of things. It is not unusual for her to get into holes. In all the Grand Slam tournaments she won this year, there was at least one match where she fell behind by a set. A comeback is never easy, and as Young can attest, it is a glorious feeling. “She can come back. Once you’ve been in a place, you know what it feels like. Once you know what it feels like, you can repeat it.”
In an age of politically-correct speech when the tennis players’ union went a bit bonkers when one of its members recently made a perhaps stupid but essentially harmless comment about lesbianism on the Tour, the Williams sisters learned to be reserved on the subject of race. Donald Young, immensely talented and highly emotional on court, also said this in response to an airhead who asked if, “as a black man,” he appreciated the wild cries of USA! that accompanied the Go Donald!s during his fantastic comeback against the superb Viktor Troicki of Serbia, who ranks 22 against Donald’s 68.
“First of all,” he said calmly, “as an American, it felt good, not just as a black guy.”
It is safe to say he expressed a thought she would share. She knows the proportions of things. She is often asked if she is the greatest tennis player, woman or man, of her time, of any time, and she knows the question is silly.
Without false modesty, she knows the level of dedication she has put into this sport, and she is by nature deeply at peace with herself and the world. Of course, she wants to beat her sister, she says, which is exactly what Venus says too, and, of course, she wants to win the Open, as does Venus, and, of course, Serena wants to surpass everybody in career slams and tournaments and matches; why should she not? But if she does not, she says without sounding canned—tomorrow’s another day.
As a child, Serena once was asked whom she wanted to be like when she grew up. She replied, “I want everybody to be like me.” She knows that will not happen but, as she might put it, she’s good with that, too.