Sunday, January 12, 2014

Watching Venus Lose Makes Me Sad


Why did they have to start with Venus Williams?  Did the Aussies want to intentionally suck away my energy in the first match of the tournament? Look, I follow the same routine for every big tennis tournament, Olympic Games or any other event that goes on a long period of time. I am uber-excited for it to begin and thus I get unbelievably giddy for night one. I put everything else aside and focus on consuming every moment of action of the first day, before slowly seeing my excitement dwindle over the next few days, as my energy drains. Life usually gets in the way, I make the decision that interacting with my friends and family is more important than a 3 am Court 8 Fabio Fognini match, and then I consume the events by doing what rational people do, focusing on the highlights. But the eagerness of Day One is always something I look forward to and this year the Australian Open schedule makers completely ripped it away from me.

They knew what they were doing. It was completely forseeable that Venus Williams would lose tonight to (22) Ekaterina Makarova. Not only was Makarova the higher seed, but she also has a history of Australian Open magic, specifically against the Williams sisters, knocking out Serena in 2012. When the draw was released, I groaned at the matchup, knowing that Venus's early season positive form could potentially come crashing to a halt in round one at Melbourne,  before I even had a chance to get comfortable.  Venus has a history of painful Australian open losses and the matchup with Makarova seemed destined to add another page to her general disdain for this place. Unfortunately the match completely followed the script. Venus won the first set, gave up the second and seemed to be cruising in the third, going up 3-0 and setting up a potential major move for the American into the fourth round. But then history bombarded us, Makarova won five straight games, served out the set and we witnessed another painful Venus loss.

Here is the reality. I hate to watch Venus lose. I have always found the eldest Williams sister to be somewhat of a tragic figure. On the surface that seems silly. She has won seven grand slams, has more money than she will ever need and by all accounts, lives a healthy, well-rounded life in which tennis is only a part of her overall makeup. But I can't help but still feel bad when I see her lose. Part of it is because even as the older sibling, she will always be the lesser tennis Williams. While still having a Hall of Fame career of her own, she will never be remembered without a comparison to her sister and the ways in which she has come up short will be part of every memory about her. Most of the time when siblings play sports, one is markedly better than the other and the dynamic becomes clear and defined. Whether it be the Lopez brothers in basketball, the Waltrips in auto racing or the McEnroes in tennis, it is almost always the case that one sibling is a star and the other is a successful, but clearly lesser version.

But the Williams sisters are different. Venus was the star first. She was a trailblazer in sports, breaking barriers from the moment she entered tennis and bringing a powerful, athletic game to the sport that completely changed the way all of the female players approached being a professional. When Venus Williams came on the scene the game shifted on and off the court, as her rise was one of the single biggest draws the sport had ever seen. However just a couple of years later, along came Serena and everything changed. There were a couple of years of great competition as the two sisters dueled for the best player in the world status, but very quickly it was clear, Serena was the more dominant force. Venus became an afterthought as Serena did everything her little sister did, only better. She took the mantle as likely the best player to ever play the game and Venus was left as a multiple major winner, always in her (younger) sister's shadow. The closest sports equivalent one can find is the Manning brothers in football, but only if Eli somehow turned into football's Babe Ruth, while Peyton retreated to Stan Musial status (a legend, but not the GOAT) . But that didn't happen...even if Eli wins more rings, Peyton is the superior player and both can take solace in their individual accomplishments and stable relationship to each other.

I am sure Venus feels none of the disappointment I project on her. She seems to be her sister's biggest supporter and has never looked to me to be the jealous type. I love that the sisters still play doubles together and their friendship has never wavered, at least in public. But as I watch Venus's career wind down, her losses inevitably sadden me. I project what would likely be my own insecurity in a similar situation (hating someone younger, cooler and more talented than you in your own profession is why I have a dartboard with Drew Franklin's picture on it in the Outer Courts' office), onto Venus when it is probably not needed. She seems fine with it, and I should be too. But I can't help it. Watching Venus lose makes me sad and has dampened my excitement for Day One in Melbourne. I now am not sure if I can stand to stay up all night, and even Chris Fowler's late night puns are not having the same effect on me. Hopefully something will fix this quickly and get my giddi...oh wait, did you say Ernests Gulbis just threw a racket and is having a temper tantrum, while using language that would make the producers of "Wolf of Wall Street" blush?

Ok fine, I am back in.