With Williams sisters entering tennis twilight time, everyone should cheer for them

Nothing humanizes a person like time.

Even the most distant of athletes, even the most intimidating, softens with age. A few wrinkles in twilight and the greater the affection can grow as others look on.

Nothing provides more empathy than tears.

Even the most ruthless of players, even the most coldly efficient, becomes more empathetic as she weeps. Show a little passion, let the tears flow in the joy of being able to compete, and the world will pull you close.

With those things in mind, here is a question:

Are you prepared to pull for the Williams sisters yet?

These days, they limp. Venus is 31, and Serena is nearing 30, and together their mortality is showing. Steffi Graf never won a Grand Slam singles title after 30. Chris Evert won two. The ageless Martina Navratilova won three. Women's tennis is no longer the teenage sock hop it used to be, but even for the Williams sisters, the number of Slams left to win no longer seems infinite.

Frankly, that might be the best reason of all to root for them.

It is an odd thing, vulnerability. It allows perceptions to change. What was once feared becomes admired. For instance, it was easier to root for Andre Agassi after he had a few years on him. John McEnroe eventually grew up, too. With Serena and Venus, the same might happen.

For much of their careers, the Williams sisters and the rest of tennis have kept each other at a distance. Their critics have called them aloof, or arrogant. There have been times both sisters have seemed to treat tennis as if it were a stopover on their way to celebrity. It has been as if they were dabbling in tennis on their way to television and fashion.

Has it been racism? There are enough dunderheads in the world that you can never completely dismiss it. (For instance, the sisters haven't played the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., since 2001 because of taunts they heard.)

Has it been their father, who can say the silliest things at the most inopportune moments? (For instance, Richard Williams once suggested his daughters faced the same discrimination as Althea Gibson had 50 years earlier.)

More than that, however, I think it has been the way Venus and Serena simply have ground the rest of the tour under their heels. They have been Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun, and everyone else has been a villager fleeing in terror. Together, they have won nine of the past 11 Wimbledons.

In the past, when the Williams sisters were well, and when they were focused, no one else had a chance. The late Wilt Chamberlain once suggested that "nobody pulls for Goliath." You might as well add " … or her sister."

With other champions, greatness is celebrated more openly. Though you get the idea the Williamses are respected, they have never seemed to be quite as beloved as they should.

It's a shame, because they have been such a force. Yes, Graf won more majors, and Navratilova won as many Wimbledons (nine) as Venus and Serena combined. But ask yourself this: In a tournament of all-time great players, with Graf and Navratilova and Evert and Margaret Court and Billie Jean King and Monica Seles, how do you think the Williams sisters would fare? If they were focused, and if they were healthy, I say both would reach the semis. Maybe the final. That's how powerful they've been.

Still, when it has come to the Williamses, the silliest theories seem to crop up. They have been accused of embellishing their injuries. They have been accused of orchestrating their results. (That one has always struck me as particularly absurd, because a player doesn't get to the final without being ultracompetitive. Once there, do you really suspect a player of throwing a match? Even to her sister?)

Over the years, however, this is the one that has gotten to me: That somehow, Venus and Serena in the same final is bad for tennis. Really? Tennis would be better off with an inferior player in the final? Someone other than Venus would challenge Serena, and vice versa? Who?

Where were all of these protests the five times Navratilova played Evert in the Wimbledon final (all won by Navratilova, by the way)? Does anyone hate the notion of another Federer-Nadal men's final this year? Of course not. No one will moan if the Manning brothers play against each other in the Super Bowl.

And if Venus gets to play Serena this year, I'm all for it.

This time, I don't think it would bother nearly as many tennis fans to see another all-Williams final. This year they are the underdogs. Venus has her rickety knees, and Serena missed much of the past year after foot surgery and blood clots in her lungs. Serena is seeded seventh and already feels like she has been banished to Court 2. Venus is seeded 23rd.

Perhaps that is why the image of Serena weeping at courtside over getting back to Wimbledon was endearing. The Williams sisters no longer look unbeatable. After the sweat and the blood and the pain and the tears, they look like just another set of champions fighting against the calendar.

This time, Venus and Serena finally look mortal. It looks good on them. It looks embraceable.

Saturday morning in the women's final, it would look better than ever.

With Williams sisters entering tennis twilight time, everyone should cheer for them 06/25/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 26, 2011 2:31pm]

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