Maybe the Williams Sisters Had it Right All Along

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 19, 2009

Maybe there is no right or wrong way to handle a tennis career.  It may all just be a matter of personal preference. 

However, there seems to be a prevailing view that if an athlete, specifically a tennis player, is not totally dedicated to playing just tennis all the time, they are wasting their talent.

Admittedly, at first glance—given how competitive any professional sport is right now—this seems to make sense.  But, in tennis, more than any major sport, there is the burnout factor. 

More great tennis players over the last 30 years (Tracy Austin is the first one that comes to mind and Bjorn Borg is the biggest name) have been burned out by age 26, than in any other sport.  Given the fact that athletes in most sports peak around age 28, this would be startling if we were not so used to it.

Tennis players, like any sport where there is a lot of money to be made, start practicing and competing intensely at a very early age—and never let up—in order to gain an advantage over their competitors. 

But, at what price? 

Well, the price is obvious.  They earn more victories and money at a young age. However, mentally and physically, they break down at a young age. 

Boxers and running backs in American football, because of the physical toll of taking hits to their bodies, often hit their peak before the age of 28.  But, I do not see anything about tennis which would have that type of effect on its athletes.

No, the toll is caused by too much tennis. 

Ken Rosewall made the finals of Wimbledon at the age of 39 in 1974—something unheard of in today's tennis.  I am willing to bet that he was able to this, at least partly, because he played less tennis between the ages of five and 20 than today's stars.

The very talented Andre Agassi was not always as focused and dedicated as people thought he should have been before the age of 28.  Then around the age of 28 he rededicated himself to tennis, and won more majors after the age of 28 (five) than before (three).

Hence, Agassi's success demonstrated that a lack of burnout, and not age, is why modern tennis players fail to perform well after the age of 26.  While he may have underachieved before the age of 28, it appears he may have made up for it by overachieving after that milestone.

Which brings us to Serena and Venus Williams.

Venus, at the age of 28, defeated Serena in the finals last year to win her fifth Wimbledon (her seventh Grand Slam singles title).

Serena, now 27, just did her sister one better by eliminating Venus in the quarterfinals and going on to win the U.S. Open (her ninth Grand Slam singles win). 

In addition, Serena recently regained the World No. 1 ranking after winning the Australian Open (her 10th Grand Slam singles title).  Note: When she won the U.S. Open she also regained the No. 1 ranking briefly for the first time in five years and one month—the longest gap in women's tennis history.

Like Agassi, the Williams sisters have been criticized for their lack of focus and dedication.  Sometimes, they appeared more interested in fashion design than tennis.  As a result, they did not win and dominate as much as their talent may have allowed them. 

Given that Venus is very talented (perhaps as talented as any woman ever on grass) and Serena is the most talented women's tennis player I have ever seen, this seems to be a fair criticism. 

However, to be fair to the Williams sisters, they have had more than their share of injuries.  And there is no law (the last time I checked) that a professional tennis player has to be 100 percent committed to tennis all the time. 

Besides, isn't fashion more suited to the younger generation?

And maybe, just maybe, they saw the recent history of tennis and decided they wanted to be well-rounded and avoid the tennis burnout. 

Right now, it appears to be working.  Perhaps they had it right all along and we were a little hard on them.  Perhaps, like Agassi, they will overachieve after the ages of 27 and 28, respectively, while their contemporaries retire due to burnout.

I am hoping and predicting they will, but only time will tell.