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 Clijsters 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 title 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 sport's 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.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY (WIMBLEDON) Since winning Wimbledon, Serena has modeled (with Venus) and acted but not played a single tournament.
COLOR PHOTO: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP (FASHION) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The women were a poor draw last week at Indian Wells.
Ms. Williams Regrets...
Since the beginning of 2002 Serena and Venus Williams have pulled
out of a total of 33 tournaments they had agreed to play in,
giving a variety of reasons that ranged from injury to illness to
fatigue. Here are the events and the sisters' excuses.
Proximus Diamond Games, Antwerp: right-knee injury
WTA Tour Championships, Los Angeles: abdominal strain
Advanta Championships, Philadelphia: abdominal strain
Swisscom Challenge, Zurich: abdominal strain
Porsche Grand Prix, Filderstadt, Germany: abdominal strain
Ladies Kremlin Cup, Moscow: abdominal strain
U.S. Open, New York City: abdominal strain
Rogers AT&T Cup, Toronto: abdominal strain
J.P. Morgan Chase Open, Carson, Calif.: abdominal strain
Acura Classic, San Diego: abdominal strain
German Open, Berlin: abdominal strain
Italian Open, Rome: fatigue
Italian Open, Rome: injured right wrist
Brazilian Open, Bahia: fatigue
Qatar Total Open, Doha: flu
Open Gaz de France, Paris: left-knee rehab incomplete
Australian Open, Melbourne: knee rehab incomplete
WTA Tour Championships, Los Angeles: left-knee rehab
Advanta Championships, Philadelphia: knee rehab
Polo Open, Shanghai: knee rehab
U.S. Open, New York City: knee rehab
Rogers AT&T Cup, Toronto: left-knee surgery
J.P. Morgan Chase Open, Carson, Calif.: left-knee strain
Acura Classic, San Diego: knee strain
Bank of West Classic, Palo Alto, Calif.: knee strain
German Open, Berlin: heavy schedule
State Farm Classic, Scottsdale, Ariz.: left-knee tendinitis
Generali Ladies Open, Linz, Austria: fatigue
Swisscom Challenge, Zurich: fatigue
Porsche Grand Prix, Filderstadt, Germany: fatigue
Rogers AT&T Classic, Montreal: left-knee tendinitis
Proximus Diamond Games, Antwerp: ankle injury
Australian Open, Melbourne: sprained right ankle