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Monday, April 28, 2003
Fun-filled week provides valuable lessons

By Cynthia Faulkner
ESPN.com

LOWELL, Mass. -- Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Zina Garrison all hovered over Meghann Shaughnessy armed with mousse as they braided Shaughnessy's hair one night right before they went to sleep.

It's a memory that cracks up Fed Cup captain Billie Jean King. In fact, King jokes that the U.S. team laughed so much last week that they needed massage on stressed out cheek muscles.

"She washed it out the next day," King said. "She chickened out. ... I guarantee you Shaughnessy is going to come in with the big hair next time.

Despite the fun, the U.S. Fed Cup team also spent the week working out in preparation for what turned out to be a 5-0 drubbing of the Czech Republic all while promoting Fed Cup every chance they got.

If the best King could have hoped for was the United States to advance, she got much more: team spirit, a sold-out crowd, more media attention than usual and a commitment from a re-energized Venus to come back next time.

King said it's huge to the Fed Cup to have Venus and Serena Williams as a part of future Fed Cups.

"They transcend tennis, I mean they transcend sports," King said. "It's just amazing. They're just so popular. Everybody loves them so much. When they play, it's just very extra special."

Special in part because the team members all not only said they were having fun but also looked like it. Rookie Alexandra Stevenson bounced around with a video camera for the TV program Top Spin taking it all in and leading cheers from the bench wearing a flag bandana in her hair. Even Serena's Jack Russell Terrier Jackie joined the fun on the bench briefly after crying pitifully at being left alone in the locker room.

It also seemed as if two of the best players in the world as well as King ended up with more than they expected. So much is made of Serena and Venus Williams being top-ranked sisters, however, at Fed Cup they had the chance to be part of a larger team.

"Usually, in individual tournaments it's 'me against them,'" Serena said. "I don't usually see it 'me against the world.'

"But it's different, the format with having Billie and Zina (Garrison) as the coaches, and all the players together, Meghann, Alex, Venus myself, we just built this whole vibe and this whole -- I don't know -- this mutual feeling that we want to do well and we want to be able to have a chance to compete together. It's all about the team."

"It's been nice," Venus said. "It's been very nice. I guess it's hard to explain, but if you've ever played tennis, you're always playing for yourself. Here, I realize that it's not just me, it's for the team. Whatever I do affects the whole United States' team, so it's definitely very different. But it's nice having the other players around also encouraging you."

King and Garrison both talked about how nice it was to have team chemistry while not mentioning the fiasco in Charlotte with Jennifer Capriati being kicked off the team and the other players taking King's side.

"Well, I think the biggest difference definitely is you see that teamwork and chemistry works," Garrison said. "We all work as a team. I think it showed. I mean the enthusiasm has been great. They have taken on the young kids and showed them the team spirit."

They also showed how to behave like a marquee player. After clinching the victory for the United States, the Williams sisters decided to play doubles, too. Almost half the crowd stayed to watch the meaningless match.

"I think it was important, too, in a case that for some reason it was 2-all," Venus said, "it was important for Serena and I to be named to the doubles. We're used to playing with each other and we're used to dealing with the pressure in doubles, also."

"Well, we just always play together as a team," Serena said, "and, you know, we wanted to for the fans, as well. Not everyone often gets a chance to see both Venus and I compete in the doubles.

"It was a good opportunity for not only myself and Venus to get a wonderful practice, but as well for the fans."

They did put into practice what King and Garrison pushed all week: make the commitment to come into the net. King and Garrison think a serve-volley game would add to both of their games and both sisters expressed appreciation for their instruction.

"I think that Billie and Zina, they have a whole lot of experience," Venus said. "Even if I don't quite agree with something or have a different way of doing it this week, whatever they said, I did it right away and I found out that it was correct. I think that's helped a lot."

"We try to accomplish a lot," King said. "What we try to do is not just win Fed Cup, but also for them, to help. Anything we can do with their game and their life, so when they leave here it just continues to get better and better, their quality of life and their quality of play."

It certainly seemed to help Venus, who said at the Australian Open that last season she was mentally and physically tired. But she looked ready to challenge her sister again this weekend, perhaps by carrying on with some of the things she learned at Fed Cup.

"Oh, for sure," Venus said. "I have to, I really do, in order to play well. More than anything, I'm having fun. I had a lot of fun out there. Sometimes I was ready to smile -- but I knew I'd lose focus -- because I was doing things that I'd done in practice and we talked about. I was ready to laugh and give someone a high-five, but it wasn't time for that."

Although King was ready for a high-five. Every time either sister even approached the net she beamed and when they made the commitment early she was on her feet and nearly on the court. But as much as that pleased her, what impressed her seemed to be the quality of character of her top players.

"I must say we're very blessed to have such great players, but most importantly, people of great character that are passing down their values to the younger ones as they come up.

"That's what this is all about. They're not going to be tennis players forever, but they can set a good example for themselves and to others in how they walk and talk the game of life."

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.