WIMBLEDON, England — In tennis, there are always two big stories: the reigning champions, and the young turks on the horizon. In case you missed it, the horizon these days is dwarfed by a pair of tall, gangly, American teenaged sisters named Venus and Serena Williams. They hover like twin tornadoes. Both are unorthodox, fast, wickedly powerful with their ground strokes, and as promising as a tooth that bursts through the skin.
They also make the tennis world uncomfortable. But it is not, as some people claim, because they are black. That’s the simple explanation. But even hoity-toity Wimbledon has had its share of black female players, including Lori McNeil, a 1994 semifinalist, and Althea Gibson, a two-time champion.
No. What throws this sport off is not the Williamses’ skin, but their attitude. It is not, well, tennis. Basketball, maybe. Football, maybe. American, definitely. But tennis? Or Wimbledon? Uh-uh. The Williams sisters at the All England Club are like mustard on a scone. It may work. But it will take some getting used to.
You see it in their attitude toward opponents, which borders on the dismissive. You hear it in their self-predictions, which go way past bold. You witness it at times such as Monday, when a small group of reporters came to hear Venus, 18, after her 6-3, 6-4 victory over Chanda Rubin in the third round. One of the first questions was about Serena, 16, who had been on track to face her sister in their next match.
“Were you surprised when you heard she had lost?” one reporter asked.
“She didn’t lose,” Venus said curtly. “She retired with an injury.”
A few eyebrows raised.
“This is your second Wimbledon,” another reporter said. “How far do you expect to go?”
“I’m at the point where I can do this now.”
“You mean …win the whole thing?”
More raised eyebrows.
“In your opinion, was playing Serena the toughest obstacle you had left to winning?”
Venus nodded. “Serena is definitely the toughest player out there.”
The toughest player out there? Is she serious? Pencils scribbled. Heads shook.
Then again, consider where we are.
That just isn’t done — here
In America, when a boastful kid predicts success, we smile. In America, if a player scowls at an opponent, we call it “game face.”
This is not America. So when Serena quit Monday with a strained left calf while trailing Spaniard Virginia Ruano-Pascual, 7-5, 4-1 — despite having won the last game — then said it was too bad, because she planned on winning the tournament, well, that’s going to raise eyebrows. You don’t say that here. But Williams, in her first Wimbledon, said it anyhow.
Or when Venus, a few months ago, said, “I plan to be No. 1 in the world before the end of the year” — despite being ranked No. 12 at the time and lacking a single Grand Slam championship? You don’t say those kinds of things in tennis. But Venus said them anyhow.
Or when their father, Richard — the son of a Louisiana sharecropper, who learned tennis from books and videos and coached his kids himself — admitted his interest came from seeing a female player win a big check on TV?
“I knew I was in the wrong business,” he recounted. “I said to my wife, ‘Let’s make two more babies and become millionaires.’ “
You just don’t say things like that in tennis. But Williams said them anyhow.
And that, more than anything, is what brings out the cringes in the longtime tennis types. Especially at Wimbledon, the high court, which prefers polite, humble players who pay homage to the hallowed grass.
Compared to that, Venus and Serena are gunslingers kicking in the saloon door.
Of course, it doesn’t help that they seem uninterested in protocol (Venus once banged into an opponent on a changeover. Serena didn’t bother to shake Ruano-Pascual’s hand Monday, later saying, “I guess I forgot.”)
Wimbledon is not a place you forget your manners. And like it or not, the Williams sisters are quickly going to face a crossroads: become more tennis-like, or risk being outcasts the rest of their careers.
Others have paid the price
Not that any of it will affect their success. You only have to watch them play to see their talent. Neither has developed a soft touch at the net, yet Venus already is No. 6 in the world, and Serena is No. 20. Bud Collins, the NBC analyst, calls them “the future of American tennis.” Venus hit some shots Monday that most men would have a hard time returning.
But just as the two girls benefit from their father — who trained them privately, educated them privately, and kept them off the circuit until he felt they were ready — so, too, do they pay a price for being so long outside the tennis community. Simply put, they approach sports with a brashness that we back home are used to, but most folks in tennis are not.
It’s up to them to soften or not. Monica Seles paid for such bravado early in her career. She realized it most poignantly after she was stabbed, and barely a player came to visit her. Likewise, Marcelo Rios, the Chilean star, is talented, brash, cocky — and hated on the tour.
It would be a shame for the Williams sisters to have to run their whole careers in the outside lane. Tennis should embrace them with all their skills, just as they should embrace tennis with all its tradition. But like it or not, they are coming over the horizon with the force of a twister. And it will be interesting to see, between the family and the fraternity, which bends first.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.