All of the great houses ultimately collapse, whether it's the Borgia's or the Kennedy's, the Medici's or the Romanov's. Thus, the house of Williams is destined to collapse one day, and it may be sooner than we expect, partly because we secretly expect dynasties to last forever and partly because we admire, unconsciously or openly, the audacity they represent.
It's worth thinking about, now that Venus Williams has declared herself out of action for the rest of the year because of the lingering effects of a knee sprain she suffered in the summer -- an incapacity that has allowed her to play exactly one tournament in the past six months.
This was a particularly untimely development because Williams had gotten off to one of her best starts ever in 2010. At one point, her match record was 18-1, with two tournament wins (Doha and Acapulco). But even in those heady days, when it seemed like, at age 30, Williams might become the year-end No. 1 for the first time in her career, there were questions. Most of those revolved around her performance at the majors.
Na Li played well to beat Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and Williams was issued a routine loss (6-4, 6-3) by Nadia Petrova in the fourth round of the French Open. She was banished from Wimbledon -- a tournament she has won five times, and where her game is most deadly -- at the quarterfinal stage by Bulgarian world No. 82 Tsvetana Pironkova.
It was that 6-2, 6-3 loss that convinced even some ardent Williams fans that the seven-time Grand Slam champion might no longer have the requisite degree of hunger it takes to win majors, despite her impressive early-season run. It's hunger, more than talent or strategy, that inspires players to accomplish great things. In some ways, the knee injury is emblematic of her larger general decline. How does Williams fail to win even a set against Petrova and Pironkova in back-to-back Grand Slam events?
But being a Williams, Venus still had a surprise in store. She had a terrific run at the U.S. Open, in which she lasted until the semis before losing to Kim Clijsters, 6-4, in the third. The main question became: Was that brave performance at the U.S. Open her swan song, and if so what will be the effect on the career of her younger sister and best friend, Serena? Let's remember, it takes great deal longer to build a great house than it takes for that house to come crashing down.
I tried to get some feedback on this from Carlos Fleming, Venus' agent at IMG, via e-mail, but all he would say about her future was, "Venus will make comment in due course, however the timing now is not the best or ideal. This is also something that should come from Venus and not from me."
I would have felt more confident about Venus' immediate tennis future if he had written something like, "What are you, nuts? Of course she's going to be out there in 2011. She's already drawing up a day-to-day workout chart!"
All we really know is that in 2010 Venus played some brilliant tennis in the first half but took some bad losses in the second and third majors of the year. She made a strong, if isolated, statement at the last major but failed to make the final. If Venus plays next year, she'll be 31 with a rich history of injury by the time Wimbledon rolls around. Is the house of Williams, so long the dominant feature of the WTA landscape, crumbling?
The day after Venus announced her decision to forgo the rest of 2010, Serena booked a last-minute reservation for a tournament in Linz, Austria. What do family dynasties do in times of crisis? They circle the wagons. Great houses don't collapse without making a lot of noise.