The question hung in the air in the interview room at Flushing Meadows like the lob that Martina Hingis couldn’t quite put away: “What’s your thought on raw talent versus training? You and your sister seem to have a lot of raw talent that your careers have been built on, whereas there are some other players that get high-profile coaches and don’t break the top five.”
But like a wily trout dismissing an ineptly cast dry fly, newly crowned U.S. Open champion Venus Williams refused to take the bait. “I think that at times it’s even harder for the people who have a lot of talent because they don’t work as hard and things come easy,” replied Williams. “Whether you have talent or no talent, you’ve still got to work hard.”
It was an ugly but unsurprising line of inquiry. Only minutes after her coronation, the first great black female champion of the Open era sat by and listened while her biggest win was tarnished by the brush of “natural talent.” Jesse Owens heard it, Willie Mays heard it, Isiah Thomas heard it—now it was Venus’s turn. But why expect anything else in a week when the media tried to portray a simple “Go, girl” between Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis as a Survivor-style alliance with racial overtones.
Yes, Venus Williams picked her parents well. But so, of course, did Davenport (whose father was an Olympic volleyball player) and Hingis (whose mother was a national-caliber tennis player).
But mostly, the question missed the point entirely. When she made the finals as an unseeded 17-year-old, Venus was the most physically gifted player in women’s tennis. And she lost one of the most one-sided finals ever to Hingis. Last year, her big game was even bigger. And Hingis outlasted her in a three-set semifinal marathon. “I still haven’t gotten over that loss,” said Venus.
But she did learn from it. Her brilliant run at Wimbledon proved that she could win when she was at the top of her game. But Venus didn’t bring her A-game to Flushing Meadows. There were flashes of brilliance, sure, but what earned her that gaudy piece of Tiffany silver was her newfound ability to compete.
For all the talk about the 5-3, 15-30 overhead that Hingis missed, let’s remember what really happened. Venus threw up a desperate but still smart lob, one that fluttered around in the Flushing breeze. No, Martina didn’t put it away the way a good pro should, but she didn’t dump it into the net either. Venus was waiting there to plaster a backhand winner down the line.
“I honestly didn’t realize that I was two points away from losing the match,” said Williams afterward. But what she did realize is that there’s a simple beauty to tennis scoring—if you win the next point, you can’t lose. Those decisive games late against Hingis and early against Davenport illustrated how Venus has not only Tiger Woods-ified the game, she Tiger Woods-ified herself. Sure, she brought an unparalleled athleticism to women’s tennis, but like Woods, she came to realize that unparalleled athleticism, by itself, isn’t enough. So Venus put her formidable but formerly erratic game on Prozac. On this grand weekend, she hit hard but declined to go for the lines, relying on brains and another pretty important athletic organ.
“I’ve got a pretty big heart,” she beamed.
On the men’s side, it was the same story. Marat Safin, who earlier this year was fined for tanking a match (displaying a “lack of interest” was the official charge) and seriously considered retirement at the ripe old age of 20, suddenly learned to harness his abundant gifts. “I learned to fight,” he said in his disarming broken English during the first tennis press conference with a Stoli-stocked open bar.
To call Safin’s win over Pete Sampras a great upset is misleading. During the ’98 Open, in the round of 16, Safin manhandled Sampras before inevitably belting a ball to the backstop. The young Russian played as though he were hoping for extra credit for breaking a ball in mid point. Then, the teen seemed two years away. The trouble was that six months ago, he still seemed two years away. But last week, he gutted out a rain delayed fifth-set tiebreaker against French journeyman Sebastien Grosjean. (“I was almost on the plane,” he laughed.) Given new life, Safin put on a clinic in the final, stroking the ball with awesome ease, his speed and power making Sampras look suddenly old school. Still, it’s not clear whether Safin had a moment of grace, a brief visit to the Zone, or whether he has turned a corner for good. Just ask Venus Willams, who learned the hard way that great victories sometimes must be built on the bedrock of crushing defeats.