Williamses Generate Admiration

By John Markon
Updated: July 13, 2007

RICHMOND, Va . — Given a severe and mandatory adjustment in my date of birth, I think there’s at least half a chance that my “youthful athletic heroes” may have been the Williams sisters.

The role was actually played by former Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. There wasn’t much about Jurgy I didn’t admire. He had a strong arm, a gunslinger mentality and (by the looks of what was hanging over his belt every Sunday) a somewhat casual attitude toward physical fitness.

He was married to a beautiful woman, enjoyed expensive scotch and cigars and was frequently seen in places around Washington where you’d want to be frequently seen. He had more fun than most mortals are allowed and nevertheless managed a Hall of Fame career.

The Williamses strike me as having done the same thing.

Venus Ebony Starr Williams, who won her fourth Wimbledon singles title last week, freely admits she hates to practice, has a hard time getting enthusiastic about anything less than a Grand Slam event and will always bypass anything healthy in favor of a jelly doughnut.

She drives fast cars, dates well-known, well-heeled men and seldom takes the court wearing less than $10,000 worth of jewelry.

Younger sister Serena actually has more major titles (8 vs. Venus’ 6) and perhaps an even more high-flying lifestyle.

“I was born to play tennis,” she said once at the U.S. Open, “but I was born to do a lot of other things, too.” A few minutes later, she said her favorite tennis outfits were “Just like me, fun, exciting, sexy and daring.”

In women’s tennis, about the only thing more direct than one of Venus’ 125-mph serves is an interview with Serena. Greatly paraphrased, here’s her response to why she insists on using a very modest 135 pounds as her official program weight:

“Because that’s what I weigh in my heart and mind. I just have a big [chest] and a really huge [rear end]. It makes me look like I’m so much bigger than the other girls, but, actually, only certain parts of me are bigger. I could drop 20 pounds and [those parts] would still be big.”

Single-minded dedication to their sport was something both women got over in their teens. Had Venus’ careers in fashion and interior design and Serena’s aspirations as an actress taken off more dramatically, they both might have left tennis behind years ago.

Oddly enough, they were both viewed as robotic creations of their father when they first emerged as professionals in the 1990s. Richard Williams, a man who could set off a polygraph just by walking next to it, used to boast that he replaced his wife’s birth-control pills with placebos in order to enable her to bear two more children that he could mold into tennis stars.

Richard Williams is still seldom more than five minutes away from his next outrageous statement. He divorced the mother of his daughters years ago, but he’s still the coach of record for both Venus and Serena.

The sisters appear to coexist even more smoothly with each other. They live in close proximity outside West Palm Beach and have steadfastly refused to develop anything resembling a rivalry.

How they’ll be regarded by history is hard to say. Neither sister has held the No. 1 ranking since 2002. Venus has 35 career singles titles and Serena 28. Contemporaries such as Lindsay Davenport (51) and Martina Hingis (43) have outshone them just by showing up more often and trying harder to win lesser events. Kim Clijsters won 34 events before retiring this year at age 24.

None of these players, though, had the Williamses serves, size or style. Whenever Venus and Serena play, they make the court and the game look small. Had I not been long past the need for youthful heroes, they’d have done just fine.