Richard Williams predicted Serena Williams would have a better career than her sister and that Venus would be through with tennis after 10 years on tour and hopefully doing something more meaningful in her life.
The old man, crazy like a fox, was absolutely on point about Serena, who owns more than double the Grand Slam titles and stirs debate about being the greatest ever. He was off about Venus. Or was he? As we see her now, the grand and graceful dame of women's tennis at age 33, we know Venus is not done. But with each injury pit stop and every second-round exit courtesy of some unranked teenager who couldn't hold her beads back in the day, is Venus, um … finished?
Interesting that such a question now lingers in the air like humidity at the U.S. Open, where she had a smashing debut back in 1997 and reached the championship match. This tournament, which has held a soft spot for Venus ever since, will reveal precisely where she's at in her sun-setting career. It will explain how Venus, who hasn't been Venus for some time now and has dropped to No. 60 in the world and hasn't won a Slam in five years, should've followed her father's blueprint. Or it will show us that she's too busy following someone else's.
A decade ago, the fractured state of Pete Sampras was being discussed in these same hushed tones, a legend on the swift decline, a sad case of somebody who stuck around far too long, another Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield in Flushing Meadows. The amount of newspaper copy that said Sampras would never win another Grand Slam title generated enough kindle to warm a killer's heart.
And then: At age 31, two years younger than Venus, Sampras tore through the U.S. Open draw in 2002, spanked a handful of young phenoms along the way, poked the eye of Greg Rusedski who guessed Sampras was "a step and a half slower," beat Andre Agassi for a 14th major title and never played another match.
If Venus does that, if she grabs the crowds and keeps them, stays upright for two weeks, steals the show from her sister and pulls a re-Pete, would she, too, sense this is the proper exit strategy for her career?
"I don't know if Venus is ready to retire," said Rick Macci. "But I'm telling you she can win the U.S. Open. She can catch fire. People think I'm nuts. I'm not. If the cards fall right, Venus can beat anybody in this tournament. Including her sister."
That is a bold forecast by the coach credited for his role in launching the greatest tennis story ever told: two sisters from Compton ruling a white, privileged sport for a decade. Macci taught the girls from 1991 to '95.
But is that really so far-fetched, when you examine the landscape? Women's tennis has a clear-cut No. 1, and then there's a considerable gap. You could argue the women's side has never been this watered-down, never been so star-starved and never this muddled in the Williams sisters era. Maria Sharapova is starting to break apart and can't keep a coach. Victoria Azarenka cannot be discussed in epic tones just yet, and maybe not ever. This year's Wimbledon winner was Marion Bartoli, never considered a great player, and she has already retired.
There is no Justine Henin, or Kim Clijsters, or Amelie Mauresmo, or Jen Capriati, or Lindsay Davenport or what the hell, no Martina Hingis, who beat Venus for that '97 title before being pummeled herself by the power game.
"Those players have exited stage left," Macci said. "They're all gone. They've retired. And it kind of made a lot of players who were ranked around No. 20 suddenly rise into the top 10. Well, there's not a lot of mental strength in the women's game except for a couple, and that's why I think Venus has a chance, a good chance."
Venus has always played it coy about her future, and the only time she chose to be blunt was, coincidently, at last year's U.S. Open when she said: "If I was out there and people are killing me, then maybe it's time to hang it up. I'm not getting destroyed out there. I just have to find the answer inside myself."
Her latest stock answer is "when it's time, it's time." But here in a new year, Venus has played only 18 matches (losing seven) with no titles, spends a good portion of her post-practice routine getting treatment, and hears as many whispers as sympathetic cheers. If she makes a quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open, more than a few observers would see that as a victory.
Her biggest threat, besides the younger sis, is her body. Venus must ask her limbs to survive seven straight matches. That body hasn't been right for almost a decade. She has played in only three matches since the French because of back issues. She has long suffered through Sjogren's syndrome, which saps her energy.
"I've dealt with injuries, like, my whole career," she said. "But I'm a fighter."
Macci also wonders if Venus' lack of polish is now coming back to haunt her. He says Venus has survived on her athletic ability for so long, and now that her body is betraying her, she doesn't have a fallback plan, a go-to weapon that can carry her to a Sunday or through two weeks of a major.
"If she had gone to the net a lot more, or at least incorporated it more, get a little more Navratilova in her game, it would make all the difference," Macci said. "More technical help, especially on her serve, would've allowed her to hit 120 miles per hour on her first serve and 100 on her second. It's easy to fall into the trap and run around the court and `athlete' yourself past a lot of players and get away with it. Look, don't get me wrong. She's had a great career. What she's done is amazing. But I feel with her size and strength, she left a lot on the table. She has a lot of gifts that could've been exploited more."
In some respects Venus has had a more remarkable career than her sister. It was Venus who had to deal with the demands and the unfathomable hype, by virtue of being the oldest and the first to turn pro. It was Venus, more than Serena, who had to answer for her father when he said something off-color. It was Venus who helped turned women's tennis into an ATM machine.
And it is Venus who had to deal with getting beat by her younger sister and watching her soar into the tennis galaxy.
Through it all, Venus remained classy and cool, a perfect tennis ambassador, the picture of grace and a beacon for young women of color.
This is why she's worth a tennis fan's compassion for the next two weeks in Queens as she tries to recapture something special in a place that welcomed her into the tennis world. The U.S. Open isn't Wimbledon to Venus; she has only won her national tournament twice compared to five times on grass. But nobody loves comeback stories quite like Americans. And it is inspiring to watch Venus play as hard as possible despite her physical issues, and keep playing the game when she has nothing left to prove, really.
Besides, who knows how many more times Queens will see the post-match Venus wave?
"When she doesn't want to play anymore, she'll retire," Macci said. "But look, she still draws a lot of people. Every tournament would like to have her in it. She's still competitive. She's on center court. She can still beat anybody in the top 10. I think it's normal that when you're at the end of your career, you slide a little bit. Some people slide and say, `I'm done.' Like Andy Roddick.
"All I know is the day she doesn't want to do it anymore, she'll say, `see you later.' And everybody will miss her."