The Williams Sisters and the Rise of the Women's Power Game

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The Williams Sisters and the Rise of the Women's Power Game
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Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova met 80 times during their long and storied rivalry. The two battled on the tennis court from 1973 to 1988, with Navratilova slightly edging Evert 43-37.

Their riveting rivalry sold women’s tennis to the televised world that was just tuning in to tennis shortly after the Open Era began in 1968.

It was a master stroke in timing, giving the women’s game legitimacy against the backdrop of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and other rising stars in the men’s game. Attracted by the exciting play and often intense animosity of the men's contests, television drew new fans in droves to tennis.

Once there, fans remained impressed with the power and drive of the Navratilova serve and volley game, in contrast to the game of the seemingly prim and precise Evert, who dominated from the baseline.

Later, as this rivalry died out, it was replaced by contests between the cool and remote Steffi Graf and the exuberant Monica Seles in the next generation. These two varied their approach to the game as serve and volley began to die out. For their part, Graf and Seles both possessed masterful all-court games.

No one, however, could have anticipated the next huge change in women’s tennis.

When historians of the future look back on the women’s game in tennis, they will most certainly point to one event that changed the course of the game more significantly than any other.

When the Williams sisters emerged on the scene in the late 1990s as teenagers, the women’s game changed forever. The serve became more than getting play underway, it became a weapon—the underpinning of the new power game in women’s tennis.

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The Williams sisters were big, powerful, athletic women who grew to dominate women’s tennis and change the game forever.

Their stinging serves alongside potent ground strokes ushered in an era of power players to which women’s tennis had never seen before.

Venus may hold the fastest recorded serve, but Serena’s serve is not only powerful, but also consistent, effortless and precise. It has been called the best serve ever in the history of women’s tennis.

Both women have been ranked No. 1. Although Serena has held the distinction longer, Venus achieved it first—both top rankings for the sisters began in 2002.

They have both been ranked No. 1 in doubles, where they also excel. They reached the top spot in doubles starting in July of 2010.

Venus has won 43 singles titles, while Serena holds 45. The main difference comes in major titles, where Venus holds seven career Grand Slam singles titles, while Serena has reached 15 to date. Together they hold 88 singles titles—among those are 22 Grand Slam singles titles, plus each has won a gold medal in singles competition.

In women’s doubles, Venus has won 21 titles, Serena 22. Together they have won 13 Grand Slam doubles championships. The sisters have tucked away a career Golden Slam in doubles since they have won the doubles title at each of the Grand Slam venues, and they have won the Olympic gold medal in doubles three times.

The sisters also each hold two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.

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In total, it is an impressive resume. It appears, moreover, that it is still being written because the sisters show no signs of letting go and moving to the sidelines.

When the sisters began their period of domination, it became obvious to their top competitors—players like Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati—that power play was the new rule on court. Neither Hingis nor Capriati survived the rigors of the power game. 

But players like Lindsay Davenport, and later Maria Sharapova, would add to the new wave of power players who began to dominate action in the early 2000s.

It meant becoming stronger, more resilient and more proficient, because you not only had to generate power, you had to do so with accurate placement and disguise. Being over six-feet tall became the new sought-after average on court.

To negate power, on the other hand, came an even greater generation of counter-punchers who could absorb pace and send it back with purpose.

Players like Justine Henin arrived on the scene. The Belgian had to bulk up and hunker down to gain an advantage on the court. The Belgian was only 5'5" and needed to perfect every stroke to survive against the power players. She did so by gaining strength and focusing, determined to win against her more powerful competitors across the net.

In the process, Henin’s backhand became the best on tour. Her will to win became almost maniacal.

While the Williams sisters pursued dreams of designing clothes, writing and acting, Henin taped her feet and fought tooth and nail because it cost her that much to win against the bigger more powerful sisters.

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Eventually, however, power tennis took its toll—even on the big girls.

Davenport chose motherhood, Kim Clijsters backed away from her powerful modified all-court game, and Sharapova’s shoulder quit. Henin’s will to win ceased as she stopped dead in her tracks just prior to the French Open in 2008.

Henin was the No. 1-ranked player in the world when she abruptly retired, leaving the women’s game in disarray, as the No. 1 ranking bounced from one player to another after May of 2008.

Between 2008-2012, Serena and Venus played on, periodically, as they floated in and out of the game—able to come back anytime and reassert themselves in the game they reshaped.

There was still no one as dominant as either Williams sister in women's tennis.

Various injuries, illnesses and personal conflicts interrupted their play, as the sisters often generated speculation that their interest in tennis waned. Eventually, however, they would find their way back to the sport.

After reasserting herself again in 2009, Serena dominated until 2010 when she injured her foot after winning her fourth Wimbledon title at the All England Club. She was out of the game for almost a full year.

While she was absent, Caroline Wozniacki took the top spot. Wozniacki was a defensive counter-puncher whose consistency brought her victory after victory while the Williams sisters healed, while Sharapova continued her comeback after shoulder surgery in 2008, and while Clijsters and Henin tried to come back after retirement.

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Now power tennis is the norm. Players like Petra Kvitova and Sabine Lisicki with their big serves are winning big matches. Others are coming.

Sharapova and Serena Williams are back at the top along with the newest No. 1, Victoria Azarenka, who is over six feet and developing power weapons of her own.

The power game, as introduced by the Williams sisters over a decade ago, has raised the bar in women’s tennis. Women playing today are stronger, more fit and more able to blast winners from the back of the court.

What the women's power game lacks, in contrast to the men’s, is consistency—playing week after week, month after month, at the same high level. Women tend to ebb and flow from high to low, unable to sustain winning from slam to slam—except for, perhaps, Serena Williams at age 31.

Once other rising stars in the women's game can add longevity to power, they will have truly arrived.

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