Sisterhood slams door on spectacle
Sunday 08 September 2002
Back in 1987, when they were ranked two and three in the world, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander met in the semi-finals of the US Open. Since both are Swedes, the tournament planners stuck them on first at 11am in a virtually empty stadium because, this being so-called Super Saturday, when Grand Slam traditions are annually hurled to the wind by this misbegotten tournament in favour of TV ratings, matches involving Americans were deemed more appealing to the nation's late-rising couch potatoes.
Mats and Stefan did their stuff, Wilander winning in four sets. Afterwards the pair were asked if they minded being insulted by the arrogant scheduling. Rather than a straight yes or no, Wilander offered this parable: two tennis players, a Czech and a Swede, jump into the deep end of a New York swimming pool. Who sinks first? Answer: who cares? Much the same comment applies to this year's women's final, which was due to be coming to an end this morning at roughly the time our nation's early birds were reaching for coffee and cornflakes. Once upon a time, the result of the women's final at the US Open made it into the Sunday papers of more than just the United States. Now the match has to be played as the CBS Prime Time final on Saturday night. And anybody who doesn't like it can jump in a pool and sink.
But, be honest now, how many really care whether Venus Williams or Serena was the winner this morning? This was the third consecutive Grand Slam final contested by the Super Sisters; the fourth in the last five. A bit like Lewis-Tyson IV, this was a contest too far. In raising women's tennis to a new level of bludgeoning skill, the Williamses have, in effect, wrecked it as a spectacle, though of course CBS Prime Time would not agree. Opponents are already staggering from bomb-proof bunkers with raised arms and shattered rackets. Jelena Dokic, the Miss Dismal of whatever nation she happens to be currently representing, has opined that there is no point going on court against Venus or her "baby" sister. Some baby, eh? Others haven't quite got around to being so frank as Dokic, but you can see from their expressions as another 120mph ace screams past them or a smash threatens their wellbeing that they are thinking pretty much the same.
Lindsay Davenport's face was a mask of resignation mixed with despair as she was pummelled to the deck in Friday night's semi-finals by the catsuited Serena. Had a cartoon-strip bubble been floating over Davenport's head it would have read "Why bother?" All Serena lacked in that match was the executioner's mask.
Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Amélie Mauresmo are all big punchers who have fancied their prospects against a Williams, while those who play slower-paced stuff with style and skill, such as Martina Hingis and Monica Seles, have been out of serious contention for a while. Now suddenly the other big hitters are being outhit, particularly by Serena, who went into last night's final having reeled off 30 straight sets in Grand Slam play.
She reached this final by winning six matches in less time than it took Marat Safin to get through his first-round contest against Nicolas Kiefer. Once on Friday night, having netted a volley at the start of the second set, Serena picked up the ball and stared hard at it, as if about to admonish it for daring to fail to do her bidding. Such is confidence.
Naturally, they will be delighted about all this at the Williams family patch in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. His daughters' domination is a tribute to the eccentric skills and gritty drive of Richard Williams, determined that two black children should storm a white-dominated sport. However, though it is a wonderful tale, the Williams girls have turned their sport into a bore simply by virtue of their unassailability.
With Capriati and the Williamses having won the last 10 Grand Slams, the United States can safely be accepted as the dominant factor in the women's game, the "new wave", if Capriati can thus be described at 26. The same does not apply to America's men. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, whose combined age would qualify them for a bus pass, were the home nation's hopes in the semi-finals. Things haven't quite panned out as planned for the guys, particularly in the case of Andy Roddick. Sampras called him "the future of American tennis", and he may yet prove to be just that. But there has already been a worrying intrusion of hype over the Florida-based Nebraskan. He already has a full-time publicist, a sister-in-law called Ginger.
Though he won two tournaments earlier this year, Roddick's record in the first three Grand Slams was unimpressive. So, come Flushing Meadows, Andy was expected to climb on to the stage and announce show time. A quarter-final against Sampras was anticipated with relish. At least the lad himself was not carried away. After subsiding to a straight-sets loss, he told the press: "You guys say Pete is washed up, but I've never said that."
The hullabaloo over Roddick is similar to the noises made over the arrival four or five years ago of the photogenic Jan-Michael Gambill, whose most impressive statistic of late is the number of Jaguar cars he has amassed. Perhaps the best bet for a new leading American will turn out to be the unassuming James Blake.
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