July 4, 2008 11:05 pm

Sisterly love

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As the Williams sisters recalled once on The Oprah Winfrey Show, their father told them when they were children: “Go ahead, pick a tournament you want to win.” Venus, the elder sister by 15 months, chose Wimbledon. Then it was Serena’s turn. “Wimbledon,” she said. Their father Richard ordered Serena to pick another one, but it was already too late.

The family knew what would happen: the girls would keep meeting in Wimbledon finals. On Saturday they play their third, and their first since 2003. It’s perhaps sport’s oddest family drama, hard on all the Williamses but hardest on Venus. Yet even if Saturday’s match is another case of conflict avoidance, the Williamses deserve a trophy for being perfect sisters.

Very few people in tennis know them well. Their reputation is prickly. Before my first interview with Venus, I was warned not to ask about Serena. They didn’t like talking about each other, I was told. In the event, Venus was cheery, delightful, and impossible to budge from the subject of Serena. In 75 minutes in a Parisian hotel, I counted 18 unprompted mentions of her. “We were sometimes in the same class growing up,” Venus reminisced. “Or if we weren’t, we had the same lunch break. Whatever it was, whatever she needed, that’s what I was and I am and what I do. Even the little things, like, ‘Oh, Venus do you have a hair band?’ Like if I can give her a hair band I’m so happy. I know this sounds weird.

“Even when she was in a stroller, I was pushing her around. That’s just, I guess, my role in the relationship with her: I take care.”

Looking back on those two toddlers in the Compton ghetto in Los Angeles, what did Venus see? “Two little girls who were just starting out in life, and they were happy together. And they’re still happy together. They’ve got each other. Till the end.”

Venus, in short, is the ideal elder sibling. The Williams family simply didn’t allow sibling disputes. Early on, their father warned the sisters that they would play each other in grand-slam finals and would just have to deal with it. But Venus has never seemed able to get competitive with Serena.

Meanwhile, Serena was the nurtured baby sister. When Venus joined the women’s tennis tour, Serena told me: “I lived and died every game she played. Every mistake she made I was able to learn from. It was almost as if I was living through her.”

Serena still learns from Venus. When they e-mail or call before big matches, Serena often asks her how to play a particular opponent. Serena says: “No one really knows, but Venus knows everyone’s game.”

Their natural talent sets them apart from all other humans, which is why they always say that playing the other is “like playing myself”. Yet Serena insists they have very different styles. “Looking at our games you’d think we had totally different coaches. I think we have different serves, our backhand is different. She’s faster, I’m quicker,” meaning that Venus is faster over longer distances and Serena over a yard or two.

Venus told me a story about a fashion course they took together. “I’m really meticulous,” she said, “and I work slower, but it comes out right, and when she would do her patterns they wouldn’t come out right because she was going too fast, and when it came to sewing the garment I’d have to fix it.” I asked Serena if there was a truth here about their different personalities, and she admitted there might be: “She’s very meticulous. I’m spur of the moment.”

As the younger sister, Serena always seemed more free to compete with her sibling. Before their first professional meeting, she said, half-joking: “What’s love got to do with it? I don’t have time to come along slowly.” Venus won their early matches, but their father said: “I always believed that ultimately Serena would be better.” In 2002 and 2003 Serena beat Venus in five consecutive grand-slam finals. The family point out that if the sisters had fixed their encounters, as outsiders often allege, Serena would never have won five straight.

Venus recalls the sequence with apparent delight. “That S. Williams again!” she guffaws. “She kept showing up and playing better. Who’s that girl?”

But their tame finals irritated outsiders. In fact it’s an impossible situation, and one unprecedented in gladiatorial sports since the vicar’s daughter Maud Watson beat her elder sister Lilian in the first Wimbledon ladies’ final in 1884. Sport wasn’t meant for sibling meetings. And the Williamses aren’t just any siblings. So close in age, they have the blurry inter-personal boundaries normally found in twins. A Williams final is a clash between their two deepest values: family and winning.

The Williamses, for all the abuse they take, are the ultimate good girls. They love each other, love their parents (a rarity in tennis), love God, have stuck with the game for a decade while rivals such as Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis disappeared, have passions outside sport, and are nicer than everyone says. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate family and siblings even without beating them at Wimbledon knows that none of this is easy.


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Martin Sandbu

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