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Serena digs deep for another victory

Why Wimbledon needs the Williams sisters

Simon Cambers @scambers73

The return of two of its best players – two of the best players of all time – would be greeted with delight by most other sports, but when Serena and Venus Williams announced their comebacks after life-threatening illness and injury (Serena) and simple injury (Venus), there were more than a few murmurings to go with those who were genuinely happy to see them back.

“What if one of them wins Wimbledon?” some asked. “What would that say for women’s tennis?” How can a player, in Serena’s case, be out for a year and almost be on her deathbed (her words) and then come back and win Wimbledon?

We’ll come back to the Williams sisters in a while but first, let’s deal with the sexism. Whatever it does, whoever it has at the top, whatever the interesting back stories, the drama, the ability of its players, women’s tennis is still a second-class citizen when it comes to the way it is reported, even within tennis circles. The tabloids like it only for a few gratuitous photos and, in terms of column inches, it’s a very poor second cousin.

Yes, women do have equal prize-money – still another contentious debate and not one to be had now – but walk around a press room at any event around the world and I think it’s fair to say that the majority of people class women’s tennis as something they have to watch, rather than the real thing, i.e. the men’s game.

It’s an attitude problem. Women are not as strong as men, not as fast and not as powerful. They don’t play five-set matches and, if they did, they would almost certainly not be as competitive as the matches wore on. That’s a fact. But does that make it second class? Surely it’s just different.

The same things that make a men’s match intriguing apply to the women’s game as well. Who has the greater mental strength when it gets close? Who is better on the surface? Who is the better athlete, the better server, the better returner? Appreciate it for what it is and stop comparing it with the men’s game. It’s an unfair comparison, especially right now when, as Andy Murray will tell you, the game has gone bionic.

“I said to the guys that I work with after my match with Novak Djokovic in Rome (when he served for the match in the final set but lost in a deciding tiebreak), I felt like tennis had gone to a different level physically,” he said. “I feel like everyone’s improving. I feel like the game is so much quicker now. I feel like the athletes are just unbelievable.”

Interestingly, though, the same thing can be said of the women’s game. Though the Dutchman Richard Krajicek, who won Wimbledon in 1996, was roundly vilified for his statement four years beforehand that 80 per cent of women players were “fat, lazy pigs”, the women’s game has been transformed in terms of athleticism in the past decade.

It was fair to say that there were a number of women who would have benefited from losing some weight. Now, the game is about movement and strength and anyone with any pretensions of winning big titles needs to be super-fit. The Williams sisters, Kim Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki, Li Na, Maria Sharapova etc are all making the most of their talents because they are able to play at a high level for hours on end.

As the former world No 1 Chris Evert, herself an excellent athlete and a fearsome competitor, said: “The game is so much more athletic now. I think I was the first 15-year-old to come along and beat a No 1 player, and then Steffi Graf beat me at 15 when I was No 1 in the world. Jennifer Capriati at 15 was great. I started around 15 but when was the last time we saw that? It’s unbelievable. I just think it takes a little more time to develop the kind of game and athleticism and the mental toughness than it did before, because the game has moved on.”

For someone to have a year off and win a grand slam, which is what Serena is trying to do at Wimbledon, probably couldn’t happen in the men’s game. The game seems to take a leap forward every six months and if you’re on the sidelines you’re missing out. But would it really be impossible for, say, Rafael Nadal, to come back after a year and win a grand slam? Perhaps not.

Neither Serena nor Venus will probably win Wimbledon this year but if they do, rather than take that as a terrible indictment of standards, why not let their achievement should be celebrated for what it would be? They are two of the greatest players the women’s game has ever produced and they have shown time and time again throughout their careers that they are capable of things others can only dream of.

Olga Morozova, a runner-up at Wimbledon and the French Open and now a famed coach, put it perfectly when she said: “With Serena or Venus, it doesn’t matter how much they play because they would still be leading the game. They are people who have some kind of presence, a certain kind of strong feeling inside. They are winners. There are not many people who have that. They are not afraid to be like that, to be No 1.”

In the women’s game, if you have the immense power that Serena possesses, then you have the chance to win any match, any tournament, no matter what state you’re in. She did it when she was out of shape and ranked 81 at the Australian Open in 2007; Venus has limped through to the Wimbledon title before – and with five singles titles at SW19 she will always be thought of highly in this country.

The Serena serve is probably the best single shot in women’s tennis. She is probably the only player who seems able to produce aces or unreturnable serves when they are most needed. Both she and Venus have taken movement to a new level and, though they may not be the most natural of volleyers, they are never slow in coming forward, on grass in particular.

Evert once wrote an open letter to an American newspaper begging Serena to make the most of her incredible talent, to focus on her game and write her name into history. It was a letter that ignored the effect that losing her sister – shot dead in the crossfire of a gang war – had on Serena and the Williams family, but in some ways it worked.

Until her injury and then illness (the circumstances around which are still a little unclear, to say the least), Serena was busy dominating the sport and racking up grand-slam title after grand-slam title.

Her present tally stands at 13 and if she gets back to 100 per cent fitness – which we probably won’t know for a few months yet – then there will be more to come. She is too good not to. Venus’s powers have been waning for a while now and the injuries have been mounting up in the past two years, but she remains capable of winning Wimbledon when fit, if not this year.

“I think Serena will go down as one of the greatest players who ever lived,” Evert said. “I wouldn’t put her as the greatest because in my mind, Steffi and Martina (Navratilova) are the greatest because they were consistently on the tour for 15 years. But as far as her tennis would be considered, Serena will definitely be thought of as one of the greatest players ever.”

The return to form and full fitness of Sharapova has been a breath of fresh air and the Russian is one of the few who is able to match the Williams sisters for mental strength. If she can hang around at the top for a while, then the next couple of years could be really competitive when it comes to the grand slams.

Sharapova aside, there are fewer champions around to overcome for the Williams sisters – that much is true. The second retirement of Justine Henin removed one of the biggest obstacles and injury to Clijsters means the Belgian – probably the only player who can really stand up to Serena in her pomp – also makes a Wimbledon triumph seem more possible.

But there are so many better players around now than there were a generation ago – at least in terms of depth if not in terms of pure champions – that to win seven matches in two weeks is a monumental task when you have not been playing or practising as much as usual.

However, Serena’s competitive spirit and mental strength sets her apart from the rest and if she goes on to win it, the focus should be on her and not who she beat to do it.

If you enjoyed this article, then check out Simon’s recent insightful piece “Technology in sport”

One Response to “A Little Respect”

  1. mythirdelbow June 25, 2011

    I think suggesting the lack of interest in women’s tennis is based upon sexism is a little extreme. I don’t doubt some of the problem is down to it, but i think more likely it can be attributed to the strength in the men’s game where you have perhaps two of the best of all time regulalry engaging in titanic matches being ably supported by a few other very strong players capable of causing enough upsets over the dominant two to keep things fresh. Men’s tennis, in terms of being an entertaining sport, is perhaps at its strongest point ever.

    As compared to the women’s game which seems to serve up a string of rather anonymous winners and world no.1s who don’t seem to have won anything. I think this rather than any specific anti female bias by journalists is to blame for the lack of interest.


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