Coulda been contenders?

The Williams sisters had best start putting a little effort into their games, or they'll be looking back at what might have been sooner than they think.

Published July 4, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"The last time," says Serena Williams of her performance against Jennifer Capriati in the French Open, "I didn't play. I think it was some imposter out there." Nope, I just watched the tape again: It was you, Serena.

You were huffing and puffing like an old football coach who thinks he can run laps with his players. But you are supposed to be in your prime. Jennifer Capriati looked puzzled for much of the match, as though you were a fighter -- like Muhammad Ali in the last years of his career -- hanging on the ropes either from exhaustion or from acting, trying to sucker an opponent. Only Capriati refused to take a fake and kept banging away until she closed things out in three sloppy sets. It was you, Serena, it was always you.

It was you at Wimbledon on Tuesday, too, when Jennifer took you again in what you promised would be your comeback. It isn't easy, is it, to coast on reputation, maintain your top spot, then, when the going gets really tough, just turn it on and be Ms. Superstar. How, at a career-defining moment, against an opponent who clearly is poised to steal your hard-won position at the top of women's tennis, do you show up out of shape? And how do you show up a month later supposedly in shape and fall apart in the revenge match after going up 5-3 in the first set and taking a lead in the second?

And why am I writing in this bullshit "open letter" style of sports columnists of my youth, as if you're actually going to read this?

My dad used to read aloud to me from columnists who were writing about athletes I was too young to have actually seen. A man named Jimmy Cannon was one of those columnists, and he'd write stuff like "You're Floyd Patterson, and a year ago you got your clock cleaned by a Swede who was a 5-to-1 underdog, and now it's a year later and you're trying to do what no man before you has ever done ..." -- like that. Columns like that were always about athletes just before or after great career-defining confrontations. Well, Serena has now had two of those in two months, and she was gasping for breath after the first, and sick to her stomach after the second. As Jimmy Cannon might have said, it's gotta make you wonder.

A short time ago Serena Williams was suggesting that she be paid for simply showing up. Now, she tells us that "the real her" never actually showed up. Good thing they didn't start paying her the appearance money. Maybe someone younger and hungrier -- or, in this case, older and hungrier -- gets the appearance money, or the endorsement.

As I write this, I'm not too sure how Venus Williams will do at Wimbledon, either, but we're seeing some of the same dangerous attitude. After beating Elena Likhovtseva 6-2, 6-2 the other day she told reporters, "I feel like I can get the job done even if I'm not playing my best" -- this from the defending champion.

And, of course, she has done it when not at her best; the argument that she is the most talented player in women's tennis is bolstered by the way she can play so erratically from set to set -- hell, from volley to volley -- and still win. And still beat top-30 players. Yes, yes, I know that tennis players sometimes take the day off, I know you have to conserve energy for the big matches, but if you aren't up for your best at Wimbledon, when are you up? "I love this tournament," she said on TV. "I just enjoy playing. I don't feel any pressure. I know a lot of other players do."

I'm happy she's enjoying herself, and I certainly have nothing against any athlete enjoying the game she's playing, but, dammit, I want greatness, I want killing power. When I see someone out there who seems to me to have the potential to be the greatest ever, I'd like her to acknowledge a little pressure, if only because I and others like me put it there and because greatness matters to us.

Life is short, and life at the top, particularly in tennis, is even shorter. You play big matches in big tournaments at cruising speed and you have just a little bad luck, and one day you wake up and you're 27 and it's all behind you. No one is talking about your potential anymore. They're talking about how you never quite lived up to it. There's plenty of time to do nothing but enjoy tennis then.

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What I'd like to see from Serena or Venus Williams, win or lose, is the kind of emotion they used to show before everyone awarded them the unofficial crown of Best Young Players in the Game. I mean the kind of emotion displayed by 19-year-old Roger Federer, who wept openly after his three-hour, 41-minute victory over Pete Sampras on Monday. I like athletes who acknowledge that the big game or match is a question of life or death, and in this case it was: It was the death of Pete Sampras, probably the greatest tennis player of all time, and, thus, automatic nominee for best athlete of all time. This was Sampras' second loss at Wimbledon in nine years. Tell me Tiger Woods is the greatest athlete in the world when he wins the Masters for the seventh time in nine trips.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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