Saturday, July 05, 2008

Williamses’ Rivalry Is Close and Compelling, if Not Classic

The New York Times
Published: July 5, 2008

Venus Williams (R) and her sister and teammate Serena sit before to play their doubles tennis match of the 2008 Wimbledon championships against France's Nathalie Dechy and Australia's Casey Dellacqua at The All England Tennis Club in southwest London, on July 4, 2008. AFP PHOTO / Carl De Souza (Photo credit should read CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

WIMBLEDON, England — On Friday, Venus and Serena Williams were side by side on the English grass, applauding each other’s winners and then pirouetting in unison as they waved to the crowd after advancing to the final of the women’s doubles at Wimbledon.

On Saturday, they will be facing each other across the net for the singles trophy.

Such abrupt changes of mood and role have been a part of the Williamses’ existence since they were children learning the game in Compton, Calif. They would shift from playmates off the court to combatants on it for the duration of their practice matches.

“Venus was nothing but legs; Serena was nothing but muscle, and I would encourage Serena because she would lose all the time,” Oracene Price, their mother and co-coach, said in an interview at the All England Club. “And I’d say: ‘Serena, just believe it. You can do it. Stop doubting yourself.’ Because she looked up to Venus so much. And finally, she started doing it, but it wasn’t until they started playing professional that she really started doing it.”

On paper, their sibling sports rivalry has grown into a close and compelling one. Since it began with a Venus victory and a shared bow to the crowd in the second round of the Australian Open in 1998, they have played a total of 15 times as professionals. Serena has won eight, including six in a row during a particularly lopsided phase in 2002 and 2003.

But for those who have actually sat through their many close encounters, the effect has often been underwhelming. The unforced errors have piled up and the fans have felt conflicted. The psychological forces at work have often made it difficult for the sisters to fully express their games and their personalities. Meanwhile, their tactically similar games have made it difficult to generate the stylistic contrasts that have been the appeal of rivalries like the one between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, considered the gold standard in women’s tennis.

The sisters are aware of these perceptions, and Serena was quick to rebut the suggestion that she and Venus have yet to play a classic final, pointing to the 2002 United States Open final, played under the lights in New York, and the 2003 Australian Open final, played indoors because of extreme heat. Serena won those encounters. “I think you’re stating opinions,” she said. “I’ve had a very classic Grand Slam final against her at the Australian Open. It was three extremely tough sets. It was a long match. It wasn’t very easy. And I think also at the U.S. Open, it was fast, but it was very high-quality tennis. So I look forward to it.”

Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Serena Williams faces off against her sister Venus at Wimbledon.

Their last Grand Slam meeting, in the fourth round of the United States Open in 2005, was not on Serena’s short list. She was out of shape and sorts and was beaten in two awkward sets, 7-6 (5), 6-2.

Their last joint Grand Slam final, won by Serena at Wimbledon in 2003 in three sets, was also anticlimactic, because Venus played with a strained abdominal muscle that forced her to leave the court for additional treatment and that visibly hampered her in the final set. Venus said then that one of the main reasons she played was that she did not want to generate any more debate about whether she and Serena arranged their matches in advance. The sisters have always dismissed such claims.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Venus said after the 2003 final. “Serena and I have been blamed for a lot of things that never even happened. I felt today I had to play.”

The issue resurfaced briefly after Thursday’s women’s semifinals, when Venus’s opponent, Elena Dementieva, said that the upcoming all-Williams final would be “a family decision.” Dementieva later issued a statement denying that she had intended to imply that the result would be fixed, but the subject still received substantial coverage.

“They have never fixed a match,” Price said. “Why would they do something like that? They are both competitive people. Serena is as serious as a heart attack. But I’m not surprised that this still comes up. People are always looking for something negative.”

The question now is whether this latest final, their seventh in a Grand Slam, will turn into something more positive. Venus, the defending champion, leads in Wimbledon titles with four to Serena’s two, but Serena has eight overall Grand Slam singles titles to Venus’s six. Serena has also won all four of the majors, while Venus’s titles have all come at Wimbledon and the United States Open.

Richard Williams, their father and co-coach, says this match will be close, but he will not be in London to see it. He flew to Florida on Friday because he gets overwrought watching his daughters face off.

“He said he did his job, and his job was done,” Serena said. “No matter what happens, he’s for sure going to be a winner.”

Price, now divorced from Richard Williams, will be at Centre Court. She said she was convinced that it had not gotten easier for her daughters to play each other.

“No, because Serena is more competitive than ever,” Price said with a laugh. “Venus, when it comes to her sister, is more relaxed. But Serena, if she could win every one, she would and not feel anything.”

Price said she believed that her daughters’ limited tennis schedules and outside interests had helped them have longer careers than some of their now-retired former rivals, like Justine Henin and Martina Hingis.

“I know some of those players were just living and breathing tennis,” Price said. “You can’t keep going like that for too long. If that’s all you do, you’re going to burn out.”

Although the sisters still share a house in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and are sharing a house at Wimbledon, they often practice separately, working with their own male hitting partners. Serena works with the German Sasha Bajin, Venus with the former American tour player David Witt.

“I think that what makes it difficult when they hit together is that they both want to work on their own stuff, just like any other player would,” Witt said.

The mood was certainly not light and jovial as the sisters gave a joint news conference on Friday, with neither Venus nor Serena in a particularly communicative mood after defeating Nathalie Dechy of France and Casey Dellacqua of Australia, 6-3, 6-3. Asked if it had gotten any easier to play singles against each other, Serena answered: “The opponent hasn’t gotten any easier, that’s for sure. So it’s going to be a battle again. That’s just how it is.”

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