The Williams sisters' sidelines are eroding their passion for the game
Once, Venus Williams played tennis as if nothing else mattered. She walked like a queen and made competition personal. "You beat my sister; I owed you," she told one vanquished opponent. Her body language, her stare-downs and her screeching forehands were so street that tennis had no idea how to deal with her. After she won, the teenage Venus would break into a magnificent smile. She would cockily flip her racket, catch it and hop to the net with hair beads aswing.
That girl is gone. Last Thursday the 24-year-old Williams, seeded third at Wimbledon, lost to a 30th-ranked Croatian teenager, Karolina Sprem, 7-6, 7-6. It wasn't a bad loss, really; Sprem is a talented basher who had little to lose, and she benefited from the atrocious work of chair umpire Ted Watts. In the second-set tiebreaker, Watts lost all notion of the score, the lines and the basic rules of the game and gave Sprem a point she hadn't won. At 1-2, after Sprem's first serve was called wide, Watts changed the score to 2-2 and then allowed Sprem to serve again to the ad court. That got him fired from Wimbledon, but the biggest shock was Venus's response. She did nothing. "I just felt maybe I had lost track," she would say later.
Venus won the ensuing point to go up 3-2, and then she too served to the ad court. Losing track of the score is not unheard of, but playing three straight points from the same side of the court is as bizarre as hitting a baseball and running to third base. "I'm not an arguer," Venus would say, attempting to explain her passivity. She went on to hold three set points but squandered the last two with a double fault and a netted forehand volley. She didn't show much concern then either.
More than most sports, pro tennis has its tone set at the top. Injuries have sapped the women's tour this year, but just as damaging has been the increasing disengagement of the game's two dominant personalities. Serena Williams, considered the top player despite her No. 10 ranking, is most animated when talking about her acting jobs and dress designs. Venus has an interior-design business on the side. The sisters' well-roundedness is admirable, and their distraction—exacerbated by injuries and the September murder of their sister Yetunde—is all too human. But that doesn't alter its effect on the game.
Passion makes sports matter; passion turns fun and games into serious business. Venus, as always these days, lost with class, greeting Sprem at the net with a sweet smile. She hasn't won a Grand Slam event in three years. If she doesn't care as much anymore, why should anyone else?
Croatia, Land Of Giants?
Like nearly every Croat, Mario Ancic cried when Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001. He didn't cry last Friday when his hero was eliminated from the tournament. Yes, it was Ivanisevic's swan song in tennis, but with three other Croats—Ancic, Ivo Karlovic and Sprem—in the fourth round, there was no need to live in the past.
A onetime ball boy for Ivanisevic at Davis Cup ties, Ancic is eerily similar to him in build, voice and game. Since beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2002, the 63rd-ranked Ancic, 20, has been tapped as the next Croatian great. He disposed of Xavier Malisse on Monday and, like Sprem, made the quarterfinals. "Goran's influence was huge," Ancic said. "He gave us great hope. We're working hard. I just want to keep it going. You don't know where it can finish."