The battle for supremacy in the women's game seemed over after the Williams sisters dominated the U.S. Open as never before
By S.L. Price
Could it get any worse? Everything had already been taken from Jennifer Capriati last Friday: Her will, her legs, her forehand. Did she have to hear the laughing, too? Around the corner from where she stood, near the players' lounge at the National Tennis Center, that whole camp had gathered. Rapper Jay-Z. New York Knicks star Allan Houston. Actress-singer Brandy. All those friends and hangers-on, all packed together in the players' lounge, shouting and chattering and ecstatic because Venus Williams had just clubbed Capriati 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals of the U.S. Open to set up a historic final match with her sister Serena.
Capriati had come to Flushing Meadow with so much to gain. She could've left as the No. 1 player in the world; she could've finally become the dominant force in women's tennis that everyone once expected her to be. Now all that was gone. Capriati stood with her back against a wall, eyes filled with tears. "You're great," insisted her mother, Denise, stroking her daughter's back. "You're Number 1 in my eyes."
Along with Serena, Venus took what is usually tennis's most chaotic and contentious Grand Slam event and consumed it like an olive off a toothpick. Nothing that happened in New York over the fortnight -- not the rise of controversial 20-year-old men's champ Lleyton Hewitt, not the boom and bust of 19-year-old Andy Roddick, not even the stirring rebirth of Pete Sampras -- could retard the Williams express. After tearing through the women's draw (Venus and Serena hammered No. 2 Capriati and No. 1 Martina Hingis, respectively, in straight sets in the semis, combining for 61 winners while their opponents had only nine), the Williamses took Saturday's final to prime time for the first time. With a choir singing and celebrities mugging, they brought the women's final its best TV rating (7.7 overnight) in two decades and provided America with a sloppy, tense spectacle that proved enthralling on every level but the athletic.
"Hey, I wouldn't have missed it either if I knew something so historic was going to happen," 19-year-old Serena said after Venus, 21, beat her 6-2, 6-4. "I guess a lot of people want to watch us. For me, it's really exciting because some of these [celebrities] are really superstars. I didn't think that they would want to watch little me play tennis."
Tennis is only the half of it. For the first time since 1884, sisters had played each other in a Grand Slam final, and for the first time, two ghetto-raised African-Americans have risen to the pinnacle of prominence in a traditionally wealthy and white game. "Tennis has come to a different level now -- these girls have raised the bar," said Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, the widow of Arthur Ashe, after the match in the stadium named for her husband. "I feel tonight the way I'll feel at my daughter's high school and college graduations. Arthur would have liked to have been here for them, because we're all beneficiaries. They've done a wonderful job."
Then, too, there's the Williams family, which, usually because of the sisters' unpredictable father, Richard, has served as a lightning rod for admiration and controversy. There has been much talk about the family's insularity and cockiness, but it was largely overlooked that at its moment of greatest triumph, the Williams clan was breaking apart. Over the last year Venus has successfully defended her Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles and solidified her place as the game's top player, while Serena, who beat No. 8 Justine Henin, No. 3 Lindsay Davenport and Hingis over the last two weeks, seems to have regained the form that brought her the 1999 U.S. Open championship. The daughters achieved all this despite the fact that Oracene and Richard have been separated for more than a year. Oracene is intent on getting a divorce -- soon -- and she's mulling over the best way to push it through.
"Not yet," she said last Saturday night when asked if she had filed for divorce. "Everything has to be done properly. Whenever I feel it's the right time, I will."
Snapping pictures, and declaring his intention to draw cartoons and write a book, Richard unrolled his usual crazy-uncle routine at the Open. Before leaving the grounds and heading home to Florida in the hours leading up to the women's final, he refused to talk about the reason for the separation, but allegations of spousal abuse appear to be part of it. On Feb. 7, 1999, Oracene went to a hospital near the Williamses' home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for treatment of three broken ribs. After telling investigators she had injured herself on a door handle, Oracene told a deputy from the sheriff's office, "I know you know what happened, but I am fearful for my daughters' careers."
When asked about the incident by SI last January, Williams family lawyer Keven Davis said Richard had been out of town at the time Oracene sustained the broken ribs. When SI asked Oracene in May whether Richard had assaulted her, she said, "It happened. I can't deny that. I would like to deny that, but I can't because it's the truth."
At this year's Open, Oracene and Richard rarely came in contact with each other. The two have agreed to work together on decisions regarding their daughters' careers but, said Oracene last Saturday, "that's it. It's so important for the girls, you have to have that cohesiveness -- and they have to believe that. Otherwise they can be torn apart. I would not allow that."
Neither Serena nor Venus would comment on her parents' split, but Oracene said it has affected them "even if they act like it doesn't. They've been able to cope with it, but I know it hurts them. They won't say anything, but I know. They've been able to deal with it, and now they're going on."
On Saturday night the Williams sisters went on just fine. As in their five previous meetings (Venus had won four), the play was uninspired. There have been not-so-veiled suggestions that Richard had predetermined the outcome of their matches, but after Venus again dominated Serena, the reason for their lackluster meetings appeared obvious. First, neither has faced a player with anything resembling the speed and power of the other. Second, Serena is intimidated by Venus, as if the idea of supplanting her sister's place in the family pecking order is unthinkable. "I was saying, 'Come on, Serena, just do this or do that,'" Venus said after last Saturday's match. "When I'd find myself doing that, I'd lose a couple points. When I lost a couple points, I wasn't sorry [for her] anymore."
At the end Venus was merciless. Serving for the match at 5-4, she bombed in a serve at 120 mph and then wore down Serena in a match point rally for her fourth Grand Slam crown. The sisters hugged at the net, and Venus told Serena, "I love you. I feel so bad. I feel like I haven't won." Serena didn't want to hear it. Walking toward the umpire's chair, she told Venus, "You did win. You're the champion, you deserve it, don't feel that way."
When they addressed the crowd, Venus spoke so emotionally of how much she loved Serena and wanted to look out for her that Serena started crying. "She always goes extra -- sometimes too much -- worrying about Serena," Serena said. "But she's got to realize: I didn't win this time. Enjoy it, because it might be my time next time."
That neither sister gives the rest of the field a chance in next year's first Grand Slam tournament, January's Australian Open -- "We're the two players that nobody wants to play," says Venus -- is a Williams staple. That doesn't mean everyone has gotten used to it. After winning his first-round match against Julien Boutter at Flushing Meadow, Sampras, winner of 13 Grand Slam titles and supposedly the sisters' idol, spotted Serena and her new blonde braids as she passed in the hall under Ashe Stadium. "Hey! Are those real?" Sampras asked. "Yeah," Serena said, barely looking at him.
Sampras turned away. "Man," he said. "Arrogant."
Then again, Sampras hadn't seemed like anyone special lately. Since winning Wimbledon 2000, he had gone 17 tournaments without a title, gotten married, turned 30 and appeared only halfway interested in his career. He came into this Open seeded 10th. Then something strange happened. The tournament's decision to expand its seeding this year from 16 to 32 proved disastrous. The early matches were one-sided, and protected from having to confront anyone who might upset them, many top-ranked players entered the second week off form. Only Sampras benefited. Facing a draw from hell that included every U.S. Open champion -- Patrick Rafter, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin -- since he last won at Flushing Meadow, in 1996, Sampras locked himself into the tournament from the start. His serve resurfaced. In the Round of 16 he dispatched Rafter in four sets. Then came Agassi.
Over the last decade Sampras, the game's premier server, and Agassi, the game's premier returner, had played 31 times to a near dead heat. (Sampras led 17-14). However, on Sept. 5 the two engaged in what may well be the closest a tennis match can come to perfect. With Agassi serving nearly as well as he returns and Sampras returning nearly as well as he serves, the two engaged in a three-hour, 32-minute mutual headlock. Break points were as rare as diamonds. Neither could dent the other's serve nor break the other's will. Agassi made only 19 unforced errors; Sampras smacked 80 winners. It came down to four tiebreakers, the roulette wheel of tennis, and by the fourth one, all 23,031 fans stood and cheered.
From that moment through the end of his 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory over Agassi and beyond into his three-set dismantling of Safin in the semis, Sampras felt the New York crowd behind him as never before. As he walked out on Sunday for his match with Hewitt, the spectators stood and showered him with applause. Sampras knew it came because he was older, but it also seemed that the fans at last had come to accept, even appreciate, his boring demeanor. After 12 years they loved him on his terms. "They finally get it," Sampras said.
Whether Hewitt gets it is another question. An Australian Davis Cup stalwart, the No. 3 Hewitt proved scrappy and focused under fire during the Open. After being criticized because of his seemingly racist comment about the "similarity" between a black line judge and his African-American opponent, James Blake, during their second-round match, Hewitt tried to explain that he used similarity to refer to the two foot faults called on him by the linesman and not to the two men (SI, Sept. 10). Hewitt insisted he meant nothing "racial," saying again after Sunday's final, "I didn't mean any harm; I didn't mean to offend James in any way."
Maybe not, but it appears that race was an issue with Hewitt, that he believed the linesman made his calls in solidarity with Blake because of skin color. After Sunday's final, Kim Clijsters, the No. 5 player in the world and Hewitt's girlfriend, said, "The media blew it up. He was the one who got blamed for being a racist, while he was sort of telling the umpire that the linesman was being racist a little bit." Clijsters wouldn't say whether that was her interpretation or Hewitt's explanation.
As the counterpunching Hewitt relentlessly battered Sampras on Sunday with one dive-bomb pass after another to win 7-6, 6-1, 6-1, a weird pall hung over the place. Tennis's class act was making way for the boy with a problem. The serve that had carried Sampras dissolved. "I wish I had his legs," Sampras said.
At one point Hewitt lobbed a ball, and Sampras seemed to shrink and stoop, not even bothering to watch it drop. A new generation had grabbed hold of the game in a stadium named for Arthur Ashe. Just the night before, in prime time, that had seemed like a wonderful thing.
Issue date: September 17, 2001