End is likely near for Williams sisters

It has been 16 years now since Venus Williams made her professional debut at the Oakland Coliseum as a hyper-enthusiastic, skinny and towering girl when she upset veteran Shaun Stafford in front of a packed house.

Since that time, the Williams sisters have always been part of the tennis conservation. And for most of that time, they’ve been a huge part of the tennis conversation.

But as U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez said after a young U.S. team lost 3-1 to Italy in the final sans Venus and Serena, having the Williams sisters on the tip of your tongue isn’t going to go on forever. In fact, the end will come much sooner than later.

"Venus and Serena are at the end of their careers," Fernandez said. "One is 30, one is 29. Hopefully, they’re going to play for a little bit longer. But this is the next generation. I mean, this is who’s going to be playing the next five, 10 years."

That’s sad but true. As controversial as the Williams sisters have been at times, they’ve never lacked in entertainment value and the sport will be a much less interesting place without them.

That will also be true of Fed Cup, as over the past decade Serena has played only when she’s had to in order to qualify for the Olympics and the frequently-hobbled Venus has decided to save further wear and tear on her body by choosing not to play since 2007. Both must make themselves available to play and actually show up on site at one Fed Cup match in 2011 or they will disqualify themselves for the 2012 Olympics, of which participation is a stated goal for both sisters.

Moreover, it’s probable that by the summer of 2012 when Olympics in London kick off, that both sisters will have all but resigned themselves to retirement, as their injury histories are long and problematic. It’s also extremely rare in women’s tennis to see a superstar play much beyond her early 30s, with Martina Navratilova being an extreme exception to the rule.

Since she won Wimbledon, Serena hasn’t played a match because of a bizarre foot injury. Venus hasn’t played since the U.S. Open, citing a knee injury. Both have been on crutches this fall. And while it’s probable that they will heal in time for the 2011 Australian Open, it’s also possible they might not be back until the end of next winter.

Without a doubt, in great health, 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena will be one of the favorites entering every fast-court major next year. Venus, who hasn’t won a Grand Slam off grass since the 2001 U.S. Open, won’t be, but she has to be given one last shot at her sixth Wimbledon title simply because she performs at a much higher level on grass than she does anywhere else.

But no player in the past two decades has been truly dominant at the age of 29, and Serena cannot be expected to wipe the court with the rest of the field week in and week out in 2011. Amazingly, four of her past five titles have been Grand Slams and since 2005, seven of her 12 crowns have been majors. What that says is that she has been nothing short of spectacular at the Slams, but she also has been too uninterested or too injured to dominate the rest of the season.

Just look at all-time great Steffi Graf, who won 22 majors. Like the Williams sisters, Graf began to play at an extremely young age and began racking up major crowns as a teenager. But her last title came at the age of 29 at the French Open. Two months after that, she realized that her legs were so wrecked that she would never be able to compete at a high level again, and she retired. Graf won only five titles in her last three years on tour and only one of them was a Grand Slam.

Perhaps Serena will be different and will put up huge numbers at the majors in 2011 and 2012, but Venus will not be able to do so. She has won more than two titles in a year only once since 2002. And even then, in 2008, she managed to win only three. She is clearly a step slower than she once was and is rarely able to blow foes off the court from the backcourt anymore as the new elite players are young, tall, strong and can crunch a groundstroke just as hard as she can.

But when the Williams do retire, they will be sorely missed, perhaps moreso than any other modern pairing. While Serena has become a bit of lightening rod for criticism of players who don’t compete that often and Venus has largely gone into a personal shell the past three years and is rarely expansive on any subject in the sport (including herself), they brought the game to new heights with sheer athleticism and determination.

That they have combined for 20 Grand Slam singles titles and have won 12 Grand Slams titles and two Olympic gold medal in doubles clearly shows that they have been the sport’s leading players over the past decade and more. More important, they brought serious sizzle to the sport. While they can be combative and dour both on court and off, they also can be charming, mysterious, intelligent and funny.

They have crossover appeal like no other women players in U.S. history, being featured in lifestyle magazines, talk shows and TV series. Serena has traipsed a well-worn path down the red-carpet circuit and has been romantically linked to a number of celebrities, including the rapper Common, former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson and the film director Brett Ratner. She’s friends with such celebrities as Kim Kardashian, Brandy and Selita Ebanks.

It was Serena and Venus’ in-your-face style and Cinderella-esque backstory that was the impetus for the U.S. Open moving the women’s final to prime time in 2001. It was their unbending spirits and full-throated grunts that made them must-wins for the rest of the elite players and produced such thrilling rivalries for them with prideful fellow Americans such as Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati; Russians Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva; the Swiss Martina Hingis and Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.

Even for those fans who thought the Williamses were braggarts and never gave their opponents much credit, the sisters were a must-see for any serious tennis fan.

With skill and determination, they set tennis’ new high water mark.

With strength and speed, they forced new generations to make major strides athletically.

Just like it was unable to replace the rich and storied rivalry between Chris Evert and Navratilova, the WTA cannot hope to replace Williams sisters. They are too compelling of a story, and the chances of two sisters coming along at the same time and becoming all-time greats like Venus and Serena have are infinitesimal. It could be argued that they have been an even more successful sibling duo than the famous quarterbacking Manning brothers of the NFL — and Peyton and Eli are at the top of their profession in the United States’ most popular sport. That’s saying something.

No U.S. women’s teenager — including Fed Cuppers Melanie Oudin and CoCo Vandeweghe — has come close to accomplishing what the Williamses did by the ages of 18-19. And none have the sisters’ incredible combination of self-belief and on-court weapons.

But it’s not just skill and fight that the tour will miss when the Williamses are gone. It’s been their ability to draw in new fans for the sport by the sheer force of their personalities. While young players such as No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 10 Victoria Azarenka may have sex appeal, they do not have the same evocative personalities or inviting rags-to-riches stories.

No, when the Williams sisters retire (and they will likely be followed by Henin and Clijsters around the same time), the tennis world will be left gasping for air. Or as Serena frequently says, "A little more of me."