The Williams Sisters: Past Champions

January 11, 2007

Whatever happened to…., I started thinking about the Williams sisters the other day when it was reported that Venus Williams was pulling out of next week’s Australian Open, the first leg of tennis’ grand slam. It seems that Venus and her sister Serena have been off my radar screen for a long time now. There was a time that whenever one of them was playing it was appointment viewing for me. Well, its been a year and a half since Venus last won a tournament, and two years since Serena’s last victory. Venus is ranked number 48 in the world, Serena has dropped all the way to 94th.

I don’t know how to feel about their fall. On one hand I feel sad that two of the best players to ever play women’s tennis who just happen to be sisters are on the downhill side of their careers. On the other hand I’m angry that both through the need to do everything but play tennis have allowed their great talents to atrophy. I once felt that they owed it to the historic paths carved out by Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to dominate tennis and continue to knockout sterotypes.

They arrived on the tennis scene just over 10 years ago as teenagers to all appearances perfectly created for the game by their misunderstood Svengali-like father Richard Williams. They were big, cute and intimidating. For the first few years it was Venus threatening to redefine the game. Then it was Serena who finally upended her sister to run roughshod over all the girls in her path. Then as brightly as they’d shown in those peak formative years their tennis stars slowly started to fade. Serena turning to Hollywood to become an occasional actress and Venus distracted by her business goals as a fashion designer.

It seemed the Williams sisters were involved in everything but tennis. Eventually their distracted attention spans seemed to cause them to lose focus on the tennis court. Both were getting beaten by no names. And both had a laundry list of excuses why they were losing.

For the record, Venus will turn 27 years old in June. The five-time grand slam champion and winner of 33 tour titles is at an advanced age for today’s tennis stars. Serena will turn 26 later this year. The seven-time grand slam champion will play in the Australian Open, but reports are that as has been the case in recent years, her weight remains a problem and her will to win is still questionable. Serena’s last victory came two years ago at the Open down under.

Let me be clear the Williams sisters owe me nothing. But I must admit I really wanted them to be great. Tiger Woods great. Focused on destruction and titles. Boring all of us with finals between only each other with the rest of the tennis world forced to watch enviously. And us fans at home and in the stands saying – ‘that damn crazy-ass Richard Williams sure knew what he was talking about!’

Unfortunately, it appears that my tennis dream for the Williams sisters will not happen and that’s a shame.

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Good News for the Holiday Season

December 22, 2006

We’ve heard alot this year about athletes that cheat. Stars that spit. Players that get arrested. So much has been said about what and who is wrong that we tend to forget that there were many good and heart warming sports stories this past year and that there are still heroes to worship.

How about LaDainian Tomlinson, the record setting running back for the San Diego Chargers. He is pro football’s best player and will probably earn the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. But by all accounts he is more likely an even better person. He is humble and self-effacing to a fault, never one to preen and strut. He is always genuinely quick to share the credit with his teammates and his team first and then only if pressed will he give credit to himself, even as he embarks on what may be the best year a running back has ever had.

What about the George Mason Patriots, the unheralded team from a school just outside of Washngton, DC. They made it to college basketball’s Final Four, when just about everyone said they didn’t even belong in the tournament. This squad of castoffs and after thoughts fought through the doubts and beat several of the nation’s top teams on the way to Indy. The Patriots were a real life “Hoosiers” story which fittingly concluded in the Hoosier state. And although George Mason didn’t win the championship, the team captured America’s imagination during March Madness and earned our enduring respect.

There is Roger Federer. Some of you may say Roger who? But Federer is the guy who is making it possible to enjoy men’s tennis again. He is an exquisite master of the court. Even if you don’t know much about tennis and you watch him play you know intuitively that he is simply better than the other men playing today. More importantly he is yet another humble star who doesn’t make a fuss about himself. He just plays the game. Sometimes a near perfect game. Better still is the fact that his battered opponents continue to like, respect and admire him even when he takes away all of their hopes on the tennis court.

Tiger Woods. Okay, everybody writes and talks about him. But this year was different. He lost his father and mentor to cancer. Earl Woods helped instill Tiger’s unique winning drive. He was also his son’s best friend. When Earl Woods died Tiger was devastated. Earl’s death may have lead to an unprecedented collapse on the golf course for Tiger when he missed his first cut in years at the U.S. Open. But Tiger rebounded to win an emotional British Open and the PGA and four more tournaments consecutively in the second half of the year. He bravely showed us he was human, breaking down in tears thinking about his late father after winning the British Open. He would soon after show us again with his dominant winning streak why he is probably the greatest golfer of all time.

Yes, there is a danger of being terribly disappointed these days when we lionize athletes and teams, but taking that risk is why many of us have come to love sports. We want to cherish our sports heroes. And why not. They provide us with hours of entertainment and sometimes days and even years of discussion and debate about what we saw and experienced. Alot of good guys and gals won our admiration this year. And that is indeed good news for the holiday season.