NEW YORK — As the U.S. Open begins today, the women’s title is considered up for grabs, with perhaps half a dozen serious title contenders. And yet this Grand Slam, just like women’s tennis as a whole, is in many ways all about the Williams sisters.
Only one active player owns more major singles titles than Venus Williams’ six: Serena Williams, with eight.
Each Williams took home one of this year’s first three Grand Slam trophies: Serena at the Australian Open, Venus at Wimbledon.
They are the primary reason the U.S. Open’s women’s championship shifted to prime time in 2001, when they met in the first of six all-Williams major finals.
And they are featured in the two matches under the lights tonight at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Day 1 of this year’s U.S. Open. Top-seeded Justine Henin, No. 3 Jelena Jankovic and No. 5 Ana Ivanovic are in action during the day, as is three-time defending men’s champion Roger Federer.
It’s quite clear: Regardless of what the rankings or recent form say, any conversation about women’s tennis, where it’s been and where it is, begins with the two big-hitting siblings.
“Growing up, we dreamed of that, of us being on top of women’s tennis, playing Slam finals, being (ranked) 1 and 2. That’s what we worked for,” said Venus, who faces 137th-ranked qualifier Kira Nagy of Hungary. “So when that happens, it’s incredible, it’s amazing. I think for us there’s no doubt that we can achieve these things.”
And still, in so many ways, the Williams sisters are about so much more than women’s tennis, from their clothing deals to various outside interests.
“Their passions get inflamed for tennis at times,” said CBS analyst Mary Carillo, a former player, “and at times it seems the only place they want to be is away from the sport.”
That’s particularly so when it comes to Serena, the younger, more extroverted, more everywhere-you-turn-there-she-is of the pair.
She has a provocative photo in the August issue of Jane magazine, her back to the camera, wearing nothing but a silver pair of heels and holding a strategically placed bunch of flowers. “I’ll take off my shirt in a second — locker room girls don’t have much shame,” the accompanying copy reads.
And as of Tuesday, she’ll loom over midtown Manhattan on a billboard for a Nike ad campaign featuring female athletes. The tag line: “Are you looking at my titles?”
This kind of exposure isn’t anything new for the younger Williams, who has dabbled in television acting and posed for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Let’s not forget, too: This is someone who was asked after losing a Wimbledon final what advice “as a tennis superstar” she would offer the new champion and replied, with a laugh: “I’m not a tennis superstar — I’m a superstar. I’m just kidding. I don’t want to sound like I’m pontificating or anything. Although, I am a little bit.”
Which is all part of why some wonder whether she and her sister pay enough attention to their primary line of work. Or put another way: How good could they be — and could they have been — if tennis received the Williams’ undivided attention?
“You never know with the Williams sisters,” said Tracy Austin, a two-time U.S. Open champion. “They seem to break all the rules.”
That’s certainly true.
It’s why Venus managed to become last month, at No. 31, the lowest-ranked Wimbledon champion in history. And why Serena was at the Australian Open in January, at No. 81, the lowest-ranked champion at any Grand Slam since 1978.
And why both join defending champion Maria Sharapova, Henin, Jankovic and Ivanovic as favorites at the U.S. Open — even though Venus is seeded 12th and Serena eighth, even though Venus has played one tournament in the past seven weeks and Serena zero.
“The Williams sisters,” Sharapova said, “have been playing great tennis.”
Not surprisingly, both sisters scoff at the notion that tennis is anything but No. 1 for them.
“Tennis has always been a priority in my life,” said Serena, who plays 67th-ranked Angelique Kerber of Germany. “And right now, it’s the same priority.”
During a stretch from the U.S. Open in 1999 through Wimbledon in 2003, the Williams sisters combined to win 10 of the 16 Grand Slam tournaments. They’ve won four of the 16 since. One constant: The discussion revolves around them.
“I’m a little surprised that those two didn’t hang around and dominate for 10 years,” Carillo said. “I thought that that’s what was going to happen. And I thought that was really going to change history.”
Those comments were relayed to Serena.
“Well,” Serena said, “I think I’ve had a little more effect on tennis history than she has."