Just a few days before September 11, 2001 — when the world and America’s perception of it were quite different — Serena and Venus Williams met in their first major final.
That meeting, in the 2001 U.S. Open final, was significant enough in its own right and on its own terms. More than 40 years after Althea Gibson blazed a trail for African-American tennis players in the 1950s, two African Americans contested a major championship. At the time, the tennis community did expect these sisters to leave a very large imprint on the sport, and that they have most certainly done. Yet, the unfolding of history is an imprecise thing, with many people possessing various interests and agendas wanting to write at least a paragraph if not a whole chapter. The Williamses have tried to author their stories as authentically and as individually as possible, but the lamentable dimension of their history-changing careers — shared in the spotlight then and now — is that the reactions of outsiders have gotten in the way.
What, precisely, does this mean?
It was in evidence Tuesday night, as a packed house at a stadium named for another pioneering and influential African-American tennis player — Arthur Ashe — just couldn’t get into Williams Bowl XXVII with the enthusiasm you’d see at other matches.
Fans of the Williamses might lament this choice of focus for a review of Tuesday night’s match, but few seemed to want to focus on Serena Williams’s greatness in this consequential quarterfinal, a match which felt a lot more like a final… and featured quality worthy of one.
That tendency — no, not of tennis to somehow focus on the non-essentials (though that was very much in existence last night, especially after the match), but on an all-Williams matchup to gain attention for the wrong reasons — persisted on Tuesday. It’s unfortunate, but it really is the powerful and overwhelming story from the match, one which just can’t be ignored or wished away.
I’d personally like to focus on Serena’s tennis, mind you, and I will do so for a little bit. I’d personally like to focus on how Serena played a virtually perfect first set, with hardly any missteps, all while belting the blazes out of the ball. I’d personally like to focus on how she was met with a vigorous challenge in the first five games of the match by her older sister, who played quite well and would have beaten most opponents on tour with her effort on Tuesday. Venus Ebony Starr Williams, 35 years old and twice a major quarterfinalist this year, continues to enlarge her own legacy in tennis, something that’s not to be forgotten as we watch Serena try to make history on a grander scale in this sport.
I’d personally like to focus on the fact that after Serena’s level dipped in set two — all while Venus maintained her level of sharpness — the 21-time major champion immediately elevated her game to a great height at the start of the third set, and then overcame both nerves and Venus down the stretch, in a series of contentious and pressure-soaked service games. I’d personally like to focus on how Serena, at 4-2 and 30-30, drilled a crunch-time ace to get to 40-30, and then drilled a deep groundstroke to force a Venus error and hold for 5-2, fending off her older sister in a very good match, one of the better editions of this 27-match rivalry, which Serena now leads, 16-11.
I’d personally like to focus on how Serena Jameka Williams has lost only one third set this calendar year; how she’s a massive favorite to reach Saturday’s final and play for an even higher place in the tennis pantheon; how she’s almost 34 and putting the rest of the WTA Tour at her feet.
Really, I would.
Yet, the externals just keep getting in the way, showing that while the dynamic of two sisters having to play each other on a big stage is certainly uncomfortable for them, the public’s reactions to these matches say a million things more about us.
It was bad enough that a lot of the post-match focus (in press conferences and on #TennisTwitter) dealt with Serena’s emotions and attitude, trying to nit-pick about an athlete’s emotional state after doing the single most uncomfortable thing she ever has to do on the court: play her sister. That, however, is more the concern of some journalists (who, in my mind, lacked some perspective and empathy in this situation, one that is quite unique in women’s tennis).
The story which involved a much larger group of people was the story produced by the Ashe crowd, and by the masses taking in the whole spectacle on television.
Even as the third set worked its way to the finish, the crowd was not really all that roused. Years upon years — decades upon decades — of watching sports will tell you when a crowd has been captured and ignited. You know the different kinds of roars, for instance, that ripple through the Georgia pine trees at Augusta National on the final Sunday of The Masters. You come to know the difference between “a birdie roar” and “an eagle roar,” between a birdie for a comparatively obscure player and a birdie for Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods.
You know when electricity pervades a stadium, and when the mood is subdued or nervous.
So, it remains striking — and noteworthy (in ways I wish I didn’t have to mention) — that while journalists focus on the attitude of Serena Williams, tennis spectators really are the ones I can’t figure out. In what was a highly compelling match — but one which became close only to the extent that Serena faltered (in the second set) — Serena’s excellence was met with relatively modest applause, and certainly not the full-throated roars one gets in other sports or other tennis situations. The dynamic of two sisters playing each other has always been uncomfortable for Venus and Serena, but it has always been even more difficult for fans, who seem:
A) to not want to favor one sister too vocally, for appearing to get in the way of this sibling showdown;
B) to appear to take Serena’s excellence for granted;
C) to think that a match is inherently better in quality if it’s close, not if it’s lopsided due to virtually perfect play by the winning player (as was the case in set one and portions of set three).
It is quite true that when we watch a sporting event, either on site or on television, a vocal and electric crowd considerably enhances the way we experience and then remember the product. We get goosebumps when the crowd goes wild and stays that way. It does add to the vividness and passion of the moment.
Tuesday night’s match deserved that memorable level of passion from the audience, but it didn’t receive it. A number of bloggers (though many others felt differently) used words such as “deflating” or “subdued” to refer to the first set.
It’s deflating to see perhaps the best women’s tennis player who has ever lived play up to her ridiculously high standards, on the doorstep of history?
Is this what Williams Sisters matches do to us, the public?
I’d like to just talk about Serena Williams’s exalted tennis… but when the crowd’s (lack of a) reaction and the “close scoreline over pure quality” tendency so widely found among American sports fans emerge once more, it’s hard to get past the realization that the atmospherics of all-Williams matches have not really improved over time.
That shouldn’t be the story, but it sure felt like it on Tuesday night in New York.