On a swing and a prayer

After a lavish ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Althea Gibson’s first United States title, Venus and Serena Williams, the two women who carry the hopes of the nation at this year’s US Open, played their first-round matches back-to-back in the Arthur Ashe Stadium.

It was a symbolic piece of scheduling, encapsulating, as it did, one of the smallest elite clubs in sport—African American tennis champions. What Gibson and Ashe would have thought of the sisters, whose attitude to their minority standing in this sport has been so different to the two pioneers who preceded them, is hard to gauge. But admiration, coupled with no little bewilderment, would have featured prominently.

It would have been inconceivable for either Gibson or Ashe to treat their sport in such seemingly cavalier fashion as the current title holders of the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles. Inconceivable because neither could have imagined giving themselves a cat in hell’s chance of winning anything if they spent the majority of the year playing here and there, on and off, when and if their state of health or mind allowed.

But the book from which Richard Williams taught his daughters to play in a gang-infested neighbourhood of Compton, Los Angeles, was never meant to be more than a guideline. This singular man had his own ideas about how to bring up two tennis champions and when he wanted some special technical advice he turned to one of the game’s true professors, Jack Kramer.

Williams was unfazed by the fact that the man who won his US title 60 years ago lived on the smart side of town, in Bel Air.

So we arrive back at a familiar position, asking whether Venus and Serena can march into the US Open on the back of a summer spent doing absolutely everything except play tennis and win something for America. If they can’t, only Andy Roddick and James Blake in the men’s draw have even the remotest chance of doing so.

But it is impossible to ignore the fact that Venus and, in particular, Serena, keep on confounding logic as well their critics. Venus had done nothing in the preceding months to suggest she was going to win Wimbledon—but she did. Serena, unfit and lacking match practice, had no business winning in Melbourne back in January.

So examining how they have done in the past few weeks is really a spurious exercise. For the record, Venus has won two Fed Cup matches against Russia and got as far as the quarters in San Diego before losing to Anna Chakvetadze. Serena? Hasn’t hit a ball since Wimbledon. It is her wrist that’s been the problem.

But somehow both seem to have maintained some kind of physical fitness and Serena, as ever, will be motivated by the thought that everyone is writing her off. “Proving people wrong is my greatest motivation,” she says with that wide smile.

Both have been hard at work this past week, hitting the New York party circuit and fulfilling endless sponsorship obligations. Unlike Maria Sharapova, who tends to go the Rolex route, Venus likes to remember where she comes from and has linked up with a low-cost clothing line, agreeing to design sportswear for items costing less than $20.

Although they remain extremely close, the sisters’ personalities are becoming more distinct. Venus has a steady boyfriend—golfer Hank Kuehne, who watched her win Wimbledon—and she seems a lot older than her slightly giddy sister.

“There is nothing constant in Serena’s life,” says Andrea Leand, a former tour player who remains in close contact with many players. “She has so many things going on, but somehow seems to fit in some tennis now and again.”

If, against the odds, they reach the semifinals, it will be the first time they have played against each other since 2005 when, in the fourth round at the US Open, Venus won 7-6, 6-2. That same year Venus ended Serena’s six-match winning streak against her by winning in Miami. Overall they stand poised at seven victories each.

Presuming, if one dares, that a third Grand Slam title this year is beyond the Williams family, Justin Henin, who won the Canadian Open in her only appearance since Wimbledon, seems to have the best chance.

The Serbs, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, played a fantastic match against each other in Los Angeles two weeks ago—Ivanovic fighting back from a break down to win in the third—and could both enhance their growing reputations.

It will take an improvement in form and fitness for Sharapova to retain her crown.

One newcomer worth watching is the Hungarian Agnes Szavay (18), who has been scything through lesser tournaments on the Sony Ericsson WTA tour and should present quite a challenge to the number seven seed, Nadia Petrova.—Â

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