Go in Style?
Serena and Venus Williams could retire today with heads held high
Willie Mays was sauntering through the San Francisco Giants' spring training clubhouse in Arizona last week when he spotted a sportswriter who covers tennis. "Hey, what's up with Serena Williams?" Mays asked. When the response came in the form of a shrug, Mays posed the same question to Barry Bonds. "She's injured," Bonds replied. "Isn't she?"
Who knows? A year ago Williams was her sport's most luminous figure, not to mention the most dominant player women's tennis had known since Steffi Graf. Last summer, shortly after winning her sixth Grand Slam singles title, at Wimbledon, she underwent surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in her left knee. Her surgeon estimated a recovery time of six weeks, and soon Williams was gallivanting about on stiletto heels. But seven months later she is still MIA. She pulled out of the Australian Open in January, asserting that her rehab was incomplete. She withdrew from an event in Qatar earlier this month, saying she was battling the flu (although the week of the tournament she was filming an episode of a TV drama in California). Now ranked No. 7 in the world, the 22-year-old Williams is scheduled to defend her title at the NASDAQ-100 Open next week in Key Biscayne, Fla., but there are murmurs that she might not show up there, either. Number 2 Kim Clusters speaks for many when she says, "I'll believe Serena is coming back when I see her on the court."
Serena's absence has been writ large, given the travails of her big sister, Venus, who also took off the second half of 2003 but returned to the tour in January. Beset by an abdominal injury and a stress fracture of the psyche, Venus, 23, has been a shell of the player who won four majors earlier this decade. Having not won a tide in more than a year, she has plummeted to No. 17 in the rankings. Number 16 Jelena Dokic, betraying all the delicacy she exhibits on the court, says, "Venus has been very beatable."
All of which raises a question: What's keeping the Williamses from heeding their father's long-proffered advice to retire? To the sisters' credit, they've always had interests that transcended hitting a fuzzy, chartreuse ball. Serena, the extrovert, has her fledgling acting career and her mothlike attraction to the bright lights. Venus, the introvert, has her interior design business. They have scaled the sports highest summits, won the big titles, ascended to No. 1. Yes, walking away would mean surrendering tons of cash in shoe deals—Serena's five-year, $40 million contract with Nike; Venus's similarly lucrative deal with Reebok—but the sisters have already earned more than $25 million in prize money and were never driven by dough in the first place. (No stars have turned down more six-figure guarantees to play exhibitions.) Plus, who's to say these two bright, dynamic women won't do just as well in their next lines of work?
The fallback response is, of course, that they'll keep playing for "love of the game." But there's been little evidence of that. For all of the sisters' superior ball-striking, one is seldom left with the sense that either loves tennis. They play only half as many events as their peers, and over the past two years each sister has left more than a dozen tournaments in the lurch by withdrawing at the 11th hour with all manner of alibis (chart, opposite). The travel? The physical grind? The carping media? The sponsors' cheesy grip-and-grins? The locker room sniping? Do the Williamses really need all this? "I wouldn't be surprised if they stopped," says fifth-ranked Anastasia Myskina. "They have a pretty good life off the court."
Were either sister to join Martina Hingis as a pensioner, it would be another blow to a tour that has steadily lost its buzz. But as it stands, with Serena absent and Venus at half speed, every draw is denuded, every title embroidered with an asterisk. Sure, Justine Henin-Hardenne has won the last two majors, but the Williams sisters weren't playing. Though $2.1 million is up for grabs in the women's draw this week at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., the Williamses (as well as five other top 10 players, all injured) are missing, and the tournament has the distinct feel of a low-tier event. (By contrast, 18 of the top 20 ATP players are in the men's draw.)
Larry Scott, the WTA's CEO, sees Venus and Serena returning full-bore and battling the Belgians, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters, for supremacy. "I think they're very committed to continue playing," Scott says.
If, in fact, they are, great. But if not, they should walk away with their heads held high. Women's tennis will survive. And without the specter of the missing sisters hanging over tournaments, there will be more stars and fewer *'s.