Maybe it was impromptu, maybe not. But Venus Williams, leaving an interview session, threw out this cute little rhyme that she used to answer a question about whether she is the woman to beat in the U.S. Open. "I could be the player to beat," she said, "or I could be the player to meet. We'll see."
The tennis championship of this country is about two players more than all the others: Andre Agassi and Venus Williams. And with Agassi, it's all icing from here. Williams, we're still waiting to see blossom. Martina Hingis has already made her point. Lindsay Davenport, while wringing every ounce of talent and then some from herself, is as good as she's ever going to be. And it's simply not time yet for the younger Williams sister, Serena.
Venus is the one with all the possibilities, the one the little girls run after screaming, the one with Navratilova's strength and Flo Jo's speed. Venus is 19 years old; that's prime of life in women's tennis. Monica Seles won seven of her nine Grand Slams before she turned 19. The future is today in women's tennis because you never know when some little ponytailed or braided teenager is going to steal your thunder and make you look old and ready for the scrap heap by the time you're 25.
Player to beat is what Williams should be at this tournament. Player to meet is what she appeared to be Sunday. A few raindrops might have been responsible for pulling her through, 2-6, 6-1, 6-0, against Mary Joe Fernandez.
Yes, Venus played much better after the third and final rain delay, and, yes, she might have come back to win after losing the first set regardless of Fernandez's physical condition. But let's not fool ourselves. When the point began it was barely drizzling. "After six or seven strokes," Venus said, "it started getting harder." After slipping on a slick court and straining her quadriceps, Fernandez was done. In the first set she made 82 percent of her first serves, then only 58 percent in the third set. Fernandez won 71 percent of her first-serve points the first set to only 18 percent the second set. She hit seven winners the first set, only one the third set. She committed just three unforced errors the first set to 12 the third set.
Isn't that more than enough proof? "Against her, you have to be 110 percent, you have to be moving really well, being able to come in and take the ball early," Fernandez said. And she wasn't.
And as a result, we won't know whether Venus was the player to beat Sunday or the player to meet on Sunday. So far, she's battled the flu, she's won one match in an outright walkover, the next in a virtual walkover because of Fernandez's injury. Williams hasn't been serving particularly well, she's been making too many errors off the forehand side. Yet, she is into the quarterfinals. But we're looking for a sign that she gets it, that she understands she's not playing as well as Graf or Seles or Evert or Navratilova all played when they ran roughshod through a Grand Slam tournament. We're looking for a sign that she's going to put pressure on herself to be great before anybody else does.
There was a hint of it Sunday, a telltale comment. It didn't rhyme, but it sang just a little. "I know for a fact," she said, "that I can raise the level of my game when it counts. I've done it before." But then, just when it seemed she was taking far too much for granted, Williams caught herself. "But the thing is," she said, "I should be playing wonderful tennis all throughout this next week."
Wonderful tennis. Now that's what few players here are capable of playing right through the final.
The only good thing about the remnants of Tropical Storm Dennis and their intrusion here was they allowed us to make a startling rediscovery, courtesy of CBS. It was 15 years ago that the second week of the U.S. Open culminated in possibly the greatest day of professional tennis ever seen in this country. The phrase "Super Saturday" was inadequate in describing the 12 hours of tennis that took place on these grounds.
While the rain halted action at the National Tennis Center, CBS showed Ivan Lendl surviving a match point against him and beating Pat Cash in one men's semifinal. In the women's championship, Martina Navratilova sweated out three sets to narrowly beat Chris Evert. And in a match that didn't end until 11:16 p.m., John McEnroe took Jimmy Connors in five sets. The names alone are enough to make you genuflect. But here's where CBS perhaps did itself a disservice.
Today's tennis can't touch what we saw in those clips from 1984. It's not even close. The advanced equipment and the time players spend in the weight room has created a physically and technologically superior game that is nonetheless inferior aesthetically, lacking in creativity and infinitely less entertaining.
The players are so ripped now, so perfectly nutritioned and sculpted, the points very seldom last long enough. Williams, at 6 feet 2, 170 pounds, is taller, bigger, stronger and fitter than McEnroe and Connors were in their Grand Slam-winning prime.
But here's what we saw in those 1984 clips that we rarely if ever see any more: a player with hands as quick as McEnroe's at the net; a player who can return serve as well as Connors; a player with Evert's mesmerizing shot-after-shot- after-shot consistency; a player as assertive as Navratilova; Lendl's stunning precision on passing shots from the baseline; Cash's volleying.
I love tennis, but I'd forgotten how good it was one generation of players ago. Agassi can produce that level of tennis sometimes. Seles used to be able to. Hingis has flashes of it. Venus has all the shots, the speed, the strength, the creativity to give us some great moments, to play wonderful tennis. It's time for her to start producing that level of tennis consistently, or risk becoming the player to meet, not to beat.