When it comes to American tennis, the Williams sisters have had little company in the past decade. The last American woman not named Williams to win a major was Jennifer Capriati, who won the Australian Open nine years ago. The next-highest-ranked American behind the siblings is No. 43 Bethanie Mattek-Sands, followed by No. 78 Varvara Lepchenko (an Uzbekistani who recently became a U.S. citizen) and No. 84 Melanie Oudin.
But the Williams era won’t last forever. Though neither sister has given any indication she is contemplating retirement, this year the sport is getting a glimpse of life after the Williams sisters. Serena, who turns 30 in September, has not played since winning Wimbledon last July, and is out indefinitely as she recovers from a pulmonary embolism and foot surgery. She is on blood thinners and expected to miss at least another six months.
Venus turns 31 in June, hasn’t won a major since Wimbledon 2008, and hasn’t played since pulling out of her third-round Australian Open match with a hip injury. She won’t be at Key Biscayne, either, after withdrawing last week. As of last week, Venus was ranked No. 8 and Serena had slipped to No. 11.
Unlike the men’s tour, which is enjoying a Golden Age with powerful Rafael Nadal and masterful Roger Federer and colorful Novak Djokovic leading the way, the women’s top 10 — minus the Williams sisters — has largely been occupied by a collection of inconsistent players who have failed to win majors or capture the public’s attention.
Like them or loathe them, the Williams sisters draw interest to the sport, whether for their unparalleled mental and physical dominance on the court or their edgy outfits or, in 2009, for Serena’s outburst at a line judge.
Right now, the most compelling stories are Clijsters, mother of a 3-year-old with thoughts of extending her family, and fourth-ranked Italian Francesca Schiavone, playing her best and most entertaining tennis at 30.
“With Venus and Serena out, it has allowed other women to show themselves,” said ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe, who is also the head of player development for the U.S. Tennis Association. “When they are around, they overshadow the field, deservedly so.
“There’s no one around the corner who’s going to replace Serena and Venus. But we have a group of very good American girls who could be top-100, top-50 players. Maybe one or two becomes a top 10 player.’’
He mentioned No. 92 Coco Vandeweghe and No. 112 Christina McHale as players to watch.
“With Serena and Venus out, and Justine [Henin] retired, we’ve lost three of the most mentally tough athletes in the game,” TV commentator Mary Carillo said. “They live for the big stage, the big moment. That is what I’ll miss. The mental dominance on the court. Even when they’re not playing their best, they figure out a way to win.
“Schiavone is really fun to watch, but she’s not exactly an up-and-comer. And who knows how long Kim will stick around. Yikes. It’s a pity, but it seems we’re pretty far away from finding the next great champions.’’
In the meantime, players such as Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva of Russia and Samantha Stosur of Australia can take center stage.
Wozniacki, tired of being portrayed as boring, turned the table on reporters at the Australian Open and told them the reason she may seem boring is that she is always asked the same boring questions. She then proceeded to interview herself, delighting the room full of reporters. She also made headlines when she warmed up for a match wearing an autographed Liverpool soccer jersey.
And hey, if tennis fans aren’t lured by the new crop of players at the top, there’s always the Serena Comeback story. Will she? Won’t she? When?
“With Serena, there’s no way to tell,” Carillo said. “If she wants to come back, she can win again. She is a young 29 in tennis terms. Like Andre Agassi, he played a lot of his best tennis after 29. He won the French Open at 29. It’s really about how much she wants it, how much she is willing to put herself through. Who knows what she’s going through. It’s gotta be very scary. But I’m hoping she decides to come back.”
Carillo said after watching Serena Williams win Wimbledon last summer — her 13th Grand Slam title she thought there was a chance she would some day match Chris Evert’s and Martina Navratilova’s 18.
More to Serena?
“Serena won Wimbledon without dropping a set, and it was the most impressive brand of tennis I’ve seen from her. It looked like she was committed, and fit again. If she can get back there, it would be great for the game.”
“I think she is going to come back very eager and hungry,” McEnroe said. “My sense is she is really missing tennis for the first time. She realizes she’s not going to have a whole lot of years left, so I could see her making one last great Agassi-like push. If anyone can do it, Serena can.”