Player haters. Maybe that's the deal. Jealous people are always player-hating the Williams sisters, calling them arrogant or aloof or unfocused on tennis. Maybe it's sexism, the resentment of a dominant pro athlete's braggadocio, seen as unseemly in a woman. Maybe it's simple racism. Or maybe it's just that the Williams sisters, as good as they are, are kind of arrogant and aloof and unfocused on tennis. "People criticize me as being arrogant," Venus said last Monday during a tournament in New Haven, Conn., her toy Yorkshire popping out of her Kate Spade bag. "Maybe because I'm a little smarter than the others. Maybe it's because when they ask me a silly question, I refuse to answer it and make myself look foolish." There is a lot of silence at Williams sisters' press conferences.
The Williams sisters make up their own rules--that's both the appeal and the repellent. They pulled out of junior tennis when Venus was 11, reappearing out of nowhere in 1994 and 1995, respectively. They rarely compliment or congratulate an opponent, and they turned down many endorsements until the stakes got higher--they raked in $17.5 million last year between them--and often ignore the media. When Venus won the U.S. Open last September and President Clinton made his congratulatory phone call, she asked for a tax cut, complained that his motorcade had held up New York City traffic for her and scolded him for leaving before her match. Imagine what the sisters will do to Bush.
This is normal behavior on the women's tennis tour, where all the top players have a potent combination of talent, glamour and tennis-kid brattiness. Instead of keeping their rifts in the background, like most egomaniacal athletes, these women air their gripes and grievances on center court. It makes for great TV, which is one reason why, when the women's tour arrives in New York City this week for the U.S. Open, it will be the women's final, not the men's, that CBS airs in prime time.
In case the play isn't enough to captivate viewers--although with their mix of power and finesse, it should be--there's plenty of drama to go around. Besides the marked Williams sisters, there's No. 1-ranked Martina Hingis, who has morphed from the adorable Swiss miss into the tour's trash-talking queen; Jennifer Capriati, the seemingly washed-up teen prodigy turned fitness monster and this year's dominant player; Lindsay Davenport, a California redwood, who squeezed her high school prom in around the tour and now fires shots at the other players from the safety of her elder-stateswomanship; Monica Seles, the once champion, who was knifed in the back by a lunatic eight years ago and is now playing with a desperate intensity. These women could make ice hockey popular.