U.S. Open gets a taste of life after Venus and Serena Williams

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 12:15 AM

It was spring 2001 that CBS took the bold step of moving the U.S. Open women's final to prime-time Saturday night, gambling that the most exciting youngsters in the sport - 19-year-old Serena Williams and her big sister Venus, 21 - would seize the spotlight.

The result was all CBS dreamed, with the sisters delivering the event's first all-Williams final and 13 million viewers tuning in to watch.

In the years since, the sisters from Compton, Calif., who have won five of the last 11 U.S. Opens, have proved an unerring bellwether for buzz about the tournament. If one or both has reached the final, TV ratings in the United States soar. If neither advances, ratings plunge to near irrelevance.

Last year's Williams-less final - with monsoon-like rain delaying proceedings until Sunday night and relegating coverage to ESPN2 - marked a particularly low ebb, with just 1.8 million tuning to see unseeded Kim Clijsters of Belgium pummel ninth-seed Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.

With top-ranked Serena withdrawing from this year's tournament because of a foot injury and Venus, now 30, battling rust from a two-month layoff, the 2010 U.S. Open, which gets underway Monday, may well foreshadow the day tennis promoters dread. That's the day the Williams sisters retire, taking with them the power and personalities that have driven interest in the women's game for so long.

On one hand, tennis without the Williams sisters - Serena, in particular - presents a golden opportunity for their rivals.

"Any tournament that's missing Serena is everybody else's best shot," notes touring pro-turned analyst Mary Carillo.

On the other hand, it represents a Herculean task for promoters and broadcasters left to sell the women's game on what, to date, has been a revolving cast of largely unrecognizable, unpronounceable Russians and eastern Europeans who dazzle one minute and disappear the next.

"There is almost no one, male or female, who has the star power of Serena and Venus in tennis," said Bethesda's Mark Ein, owner of the Washington Kastles, who lost their marquee player, Serena, this summer because of the same foot injury. "On the women's side, they're at a level that no one else in the game can approach in terms of fan interest, fan excitement and fan support."

Among their rivals, only Maria Sharapova, who has won three major titles during the Williams era, is a household name, parlaying her punishing groundstrokes and glamorous looks into $23.5 million in endorsement deals and appearance fees last year, according to Forbes magazine, making her the world's highest paid female athlete. But Sharapova has yet to reclaim her world-beating form since undergoing major shoulder surgery in 2008.

Most others who have ascended to No. 1 in the tennis rankings or won majors in recent years - such as Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova - have seen their time atop the sport derailed by injury, illness or a lack of grit.

Len DeLuca, ESPN's senior vice president of programming, likens the challenge of getting fans interested in "players not named Williams" to Major League Baseball's challenge during the New York Yankees' 18-year drought between World Series titles.

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