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Hems only decline
in Williams sisters

Sep 7, 2004 4:40 AM

They can import and ballyhoo all of those svelte Russian blondes they want, and can profile the up-and-down life of Jennifer Capriati as long as they like, but when it comes to women’s tennis in this country and abroad the style setters and the image makers still are those blasting Williams sisters, Serena and Venus.

One headline this week, over a column by John McEnroe in which he talked, as usual, mostly about himself, carried the headline, "Williams Sisters in Decline."

Are you kidding?

They still are to tennis what Tiger Woods was to golf — inspirations to kids to take up the game. And when New York wanted to hustle its U.S. Open last week and this, it turned to the heavy hitting sisters to do it.

You have to be either a tennis fan or a New Yorker, or both, to understand the importance of the Open, but when it is being played it dominates the sports pages of that city.

American Express, "the official card of the U.S. Open," ran a half page ad in the New York Times on Labor Day, and even though Venus Williams is ranked #11 and is not at the top of her game, she got top billing. "Venus, Goddess of 40-Love," the ad blared, and there was that visage of power-packed athleticism.

Across the page was a four-column photo of her younger sister, wearing yet another new tennis creation”¦ and sensation. She has become a fashion plate of the courts as well as a dominant star, and the two young millionaires — they have won $25 million combined playing the game — lead the parade whether they win or lose.

For a while, of course, they couldn’t lose. They won both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon four times, and four years ago at the Sydney Olympics Venus won the singles gold and together they won the gold in doubles.

Injuries have slowed their game, but last Sunday Serena sent one serve screaming across the net at 115 miles an hour, and Venus has blasted one at 127.

Reading McEnroe dissing them was amusing, because he related their rise and fall to his own. Whining as he does and did so often, he related how, when he was No. 5 in the world, he couldn’t get in New York’s hottest night club at the time, Studio 54, unless he was with the flamboyant Vitas Gerulitis.

He also attributed the success of others to his "making them work harder" and acknowledged that while the Williams sisters were plagued by injuries, "maybe both are overtennised."

Win or lose this week in the Open, they still are women’s tennis. They set the pace, and — literally and figuratively — the rest of the field is colorless. No one can get excited about Justine Henin-Hardenne, who has supplanted them as No. 1, and Amelie Mauresmo of France is about as exciting as day-old French pastry.

Spice in tennis, as in life in general, is what makes it worthwhile, and watching Serena stride to center court in black boots reaching almost to her knees gives life to the women’s game. Right now the nearest thing to excitement in men’s tennis is Andy Roddick’s serve, but Andy’s body can’t compete with either of the Williams sisters, and never will.

These big and bold and bad girls are good for tennis and good for sports and good for fashion and good for headlines. They have traveled a long and improbable road, from grimy Compton, California, to the fancy tennis capitals of the world. The oft-told tale of their father coaching and driving and guiding them since they started tennis as four-year-olds may have been embellished along the way, but it is true. They are their own rich bosses now, and they earned what they have.

Venus is studying fashion in Florida, with ambitions of becoming a major designer. Serena already has her own line — Aneres — her name spelled backwards.

They march to their own drummers, knowing who they are and what they are: the world’s two best known tennis players, the world’s richest women athletes. And they deserve every penny of it.