S. Williams' power play changes tennis forever

September 15, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

Rare is the day when you know with certainty that a sport is evolving right before your eyes, but such was the case with Serena Williams' victory in the U.S. Open.

The headlines said she beat her older sister, Venus, to a Grand Slam title, and also became the first African-American woman since Althea Gibson to win the Open -- fascinating and historic developments.

But she also changed her game forever in beating the fourth, second and first seeds to take the title.

With the power and speed she used to run through Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, she sent a blunt message to the rest of the game:

Never again will your old, reliable combination of touch, guile and shot-making be enough.

From now on, you'd better be fast, in shape and ready to whack the ball, too.

Just ask Seles, one of the tour's hardest hitters. She was all but pushed off the court by Williams in their quarterfinal.

That was a telling night, the match when you could see the sport changing right in front of you, with the bar being raised on what skills a champion had to have.

Davenport didn't have enough speed or stamina in the semifinal, and Hingis, an exquisite champion, the second coming of Chris Evert, just didn't have enough weapons in the final.

All three opponents hit winner after winner at Williams, balls few other players would even try to reach, only to watch Williams get to them and send them back even harder.

It was like watching Magic Johnson in the early years; as he dribbled and passed like a wizard at 6 feet 9, you knew a new book about size, skills and positioning was being written, and that basketball was changing forever.

Same with, say, the San Francisco 49ers' offense in the early '80s. Suddenly -- and until then, unthinkably -- a team was using a crisp, complicated passing game to control the ball and win. Football's evolutionary wheel was spinning.

Such occasions are rare; as much as all sports are always evolving, change usually is incremental more than obvious, and only with time does the bigger picture become clear.

But there was nothing incremental about the 110-mph forehands and backhands sizzling off Williams' racket last week.

This wasn't the typical tennis power show involving just a blinding first serve -- the kind of show Venus often has put on during her rise.

Serena put on a show every time she drew back the racket, pinning her opponents deep in their end of the court with ground strokes that amounted to a relentless, suffocating, full-court press.

This wasn't Chris Evert's sport anymore. Or even Martina Navratilova's, for that matter.

But it's where women's tennis is headed, with Serena and Venus leading the charge.

Yes, they're still young and figuring out how to play, a frightening thought since they're already ranked in the top five in the world. And yes, Hingis is still No. 1 and sure to have her share of days.

But the Williams sisters are the future, clearly. No one else is that strong or fast. No one else can match those serves or ground strokes.

They didn't get to play each other in the Open final, but you watch, they'll play each other in a Grand Slam final soon enough. Then they'll do it again.

It was all so unthinkable, of course, just five years ago. Had you suggested then that women's tennis would enter the new century being rewritten by two African-American teen-agers from Compton, Calif., you would have been dismissed as nutty.

Many in the sport still believe that's an apt description of the Williams' father, Richard, who shielded Venus and Serena from professional coaching and the glare of the media as they were growing up.

But say what you will about Richard, he's laughing last now. His girls are poised, personable and right at the top of their sport.

Venus has drawn more attention until now, but she's more erratic than her sister, it turns out, more prone to blowups. A bad serving day kept her from beating Hingis and joining her sister in the final.

Her mixed emotions were obvious as she stood in the stands and watched Serena accepting the championship trophy. She was happy and proud, but also jealous. Her little sister had stolen her cheers.

It'll be interesting to see if she uses that to try to raise her game and match Serena's success. Here's betting she does. It's only human nature.

As if the sisters don't already have enough assets that the rest of the tour can't match. Now they're going to use their sibling rivalry to better themselves and open up even more ground between the competition.

We're not saying women's tennis won't continue to require touch, cunning and all the elements that have always marked it.

Nor are we saying other players such as Hingis and Davenport won't continue to have success.

But they'd better get in shape. And they'd better start lifting weights.

The game is on.

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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