Williamses draw high ratings

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

WIMBLEDON, England -- Hey, new Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt and any other doubters, listen up: The Williams sisters are great for tennis.

Even if they keep beating everyone in sight? Yes.

Even if they keep meeting in Grand Slam finals? Especially.

The late Pete Rozelle's thoughts on parity notwithstanding, sports tend to reach their greatest popularity during periods of either a great rivalry or a dynasty.

With Serena and Venus Williams, tennis gets both.

Asked Monday about the sisters' effect on the sport, Hewitt seemed genuinely impressed by their success. He also sounded a note of caution.

"They're dominating, all right," said the No. 1-ranked man, who right now doesn't appear to have a worthy rival. "Three out of the last four Slams, they've played in the finals. They're No. 1 and 2 in the world. And winning doubles, as well. It's an incredible effort, an incredible story.

"But people may get sick of seeing the two of them playing in every Grand Slam final all the time."

Perhaps. Similar opinions were expressed by Justine Henin and Amelie Mauresmo after each lost to a Williams in the Wimbledon semifinals.

But Serena's 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over Venus in Saturday's final at Wimbledon helped produce ratings roughly 50 percent higher on NBC than for Hewitt's 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 defeat of David Nalbandian on the same court the following day.

And the Williams sisters' doubles victory Sunday drew roughly a third more viewers, on average, than Hewitt-Nalbandian (it helps, no doubt, that the sisters are American).

When CBS aired the U.S. Open women's title match last September in prime time, the first all-sibling Grand Slam singles final since 1884 drew more viewers than a competing top-20 football game between Notre Dame and Nebraska.

Where Serena and Venus could have their greatest impact on the game is helping raise everyone's level. Right now, no one can match their power or court coverage.

Nothing spurs a sport's evolution quite like better, faster, stronger players who force competitors to adapt and try to match them.

"The other women players have to catch up to these two," 18-time major champion and NBC analyst Chris Evert said. "These two have set a certain level of excellence and now it's time for Lindsay (Davenport), (Martina) Hingis, (Kim) Clijsters and Jennifer (Capriati) to figure out more training, whatever it takes, to reach their level. And then it would be a great scene."

Tennis had its heyday in the 1970s and '80s thanks to Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, and John McEnroe vs. Jimmy Connors vs. Bjorn Borg. The NBA's biggest booms were during Magic vs. Bird, then when Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls were winning six titles in the 1990s.

And, of course, Tiger Woods' excellence has brought golf into the mainstream, boosting TV ratings to unprecedented levels and helping total PGA Tour prize money double since 1998 to about $200 million.

One Williams would have a legitimate shot at controlling a sport, a la Woods. Instead, tennis gets a sort of Tiger-times-two.

Since the start of Wimbledon 2001, the sisters are a combined 117-9 against everyone but each other. In that span, they have won 17 titles, including four of five majors. Monday's rankings have Serena at No. 1 for the first time, Venus at No. 2.

And Serena is only 20, Venus 22.

Men's tennis could use some of that superiority -- or a rivalry.

When the 21-year-old Hewitt added Wimbledon to his 2001 U.S. Open title, it ended an unprecedented two-year patch of parity during which eight men won the eight Grand Slam tournaments, and four straight majors were won by first-time major champions.

Nalbandian was the first player since the start of the Open era in 1968 to reach the final at the All England Club in his Wimbledon debut. The French Open was won by Albert Costa, who hadn't won a tournament at any level in nearly three years.

And no one seems ready to take on Hewitt consistently.

Pete Sampras is in decline -- his ranking fell to 16th Monday -- and, at 32, Andre Agassi doesn't have too many years left. Marat Safin, Hewitt's predecessor as U.S. Open champion and still just 22, doesn't always keep his head in the game.

All three of those players lost in Wimbledon's second round.

The Williams sisters, meanwhile, are halfway to a Sister Slam: four straight meetings in major finals.

"We're entertainers," Venus said. "We always want the crowd and everyone watching to be entertained."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: