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The Williams soap opera

On-again, off-again stars may be most compelling tale

Posted: Wednesday April 9, 2008 11:34AM; Updated: Wednesday April 9, 2008 12:06PM
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Serena and Venus Williams have alternately seized the women's game over the past eight years, but rarely are both up simultaneously.
Serena and Venus Williams have alternately seized the women's game over the past eight years, but rarely are both up simultaneously.
Jessica Kluetmeier/SI
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I don't claim to have watched every match Serena Williams has played, or read every article about them, but it seems to me that if Mary Carillo and almost every other tennis announcer/journalist says that Serena only loses when she plays badly, why is it soooo awful when Serena says it?

Against Jelena Jankovic [in the Sony Ericsson Open final], it was obvious that Jelena had nothing to do with the outcome of that match. Your thoughts?
-- P-Sqaured, NYC

Truthfully, I was thinking the same thing the entire tournament. And I came away with a new perspective re: Serena's sour reaction to defeat. I don't want to give Serena a total pass on her sore losing. (It's beneath her to attribute losing to an opponent's "lucky shots" or "playing at 40 percent.") But put yourself in her shoes.

She has the capability to blow away the world's top-ranked player 6-2, 6-0, as she did in the quarterfinals. She has the capacity to blow through a tournament, as she did last year in Australia and last week in Miami. She has the ability to render her opponents essentially meaningless. How immensely frustrating must it be to lose? When all cylinders are firing, she's virtually unbeatable. One can see how it must drive her nuts when that doesn't happen.

Larger point: I've said this before, but I don't see how you can follow the sport and not be awed by the whole Williams narrative. You couldn't craft a richer story than this: humble beginnings, great triumphs, outsider status, insider status, family tragedy, divorce, race, money, grace, disgrace, education, sports.

The plot wavers all the time. "Venus is cooked! No, wait: She's Wimbledon champ!" "Serena is bored! No, wait: She's trim and buff and toasting Justine Henin!" "Serena rules! No, she's pulling out of an event and taping a reality show." "Venus is looking fairly strong! No wait: She's taking an unexpected leave!" Really, it's just remarkable. And I'm not sure the Republic of Tennis realizes how lucky we are to have them around.

Here we go again, Jon. It's the middle of the third set, in a tight match between Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. The clock turns to 8 p.m. and what does the Fox Sports Network Southwest do? They stick to their scheduled programming and move on to bass fishing!!! I'd love to see the network's analysis or data that shows me that bass fishing is truly more desired than a great match that we all lost out on seeing. Where is the USTA in all of this? Do they have a role/responsibility in making sure that tennis is getting its share of the marketing and programming available?
-- Stacey Smith, Austin, Texas

But what kind of lures did they use?

I don't want to completely belabor this issue. And I also want to make the point that the complaints are about the television scheduling and not the quality of the commentary. But I think, at least in the U.S., tennis took a quantum step backwards recently.

The spotty, erratic, often absent coverage really marred two otherwise excellent events recently. The Tours can work to alleviate the problem but, as I see it, the minute they start to subsidize coverage, every other sanctioned event will demand a handout. The Tennis Channel can come to the rescue but, as I understand it, the events are still concerned about the channel's relatively weak penetration. I think we're going to see more streaming audio online but there's limited revenue there.

I think the most logical solution is for the USTA to wield some muscle. It's no secret that ESPN is angling to take over the rights to the U.S. Open after this year. What if the USTA said: "You can have the Open but you have to guarantee X hours of live coverage from the other big American events." Whatever, this is a serious problem. When the top American plays Federer at a big American tournament, and the match isn't available on live television, it's time to panic.

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