Blood and Gatorade

by: Peter Bodo | March 26, 2007

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SerenaseopenHowdy, everyone. I'm going to keep this pretty brief, as I'm trying to get caught up here before I bolt for Miami early Wednesday morning. Got to keep my powder dry, you know? I posted over at ESPN today, on Venus and Serena, and want to amplify some of the comments I made there.

I was skeptical back when Venus frequently suggested, in so many words, that she was fine with the idea that Serena might eclipse her. Her professions of love for Serena seemed, if not disingenuous, then indicative of a type of denial. The psychic subtext, to me, went something like this:

Maybe Serena really is a better player, yet I'm the older sister. It would be tough for me to go out and give my all, only to lose to her, because that goes against the grain of the sibling pecking order. I don't want that pecking order upset, and I love my kid sister truly and well. So the only thing to do is more or less refuse to compete.

If people say I never had my heart in it, the issue of who is better remains, if not unresolved, than heavily qualified. That way, Serena gets the titles and vindication she is striving for, and I get to retain something more valuable to me: my role as Serena's guardian angel, mentor and eternal big sister.

It's hard to be judgmental about that line of reasoning when the issue is blood relations between two women in an mind-blowing, utterly unique situation. And I can't help but believe that all those brutally long hours the girls spent practicing and grinding together, on what most folks would have considered a fool's errand in Compton, a place where fools - and many innocent bystanders - routinely found themselves looking at the wrong end of a Glock 9, only heightened the psychic stakes. They took a remarkable journey, these two girls who are so different yet so deeply bonded, hand-in-hand all the way, with plenty of people and events working, with a distinct lack of success, to pry them apart.

Serena is, as I like to write, a force of nature; something like the weather event that occurs when two fronts collide. The other, Venus, is very nearly the opposite: composed, measured sometimes opaque and seemingly never entirely engaged. To me, Serena has often appeared as too real, Venus as not real enough.

But when you weigh the entire saga and feel the heft of the accomplishment they represent, this much is pretty clear: Given the backstory, can anything have been worse than Serena becoming the more successful player at the cost of the the sisterly relationship? The staunch realist, addicted to the triumph of naked truth, no matter how ugly, might have found that outcome satisfying if not all that attractive in some cold, moralistic way. Instead, the realist-defying reality is that the Williams girls have crafted a narrative that is less attic tragedy than a bittersweet, arty film incandescent with the charitable, tempered, and forgiving. The emerging story is much smaller, but a hail of a lot warmer.

That Venus has always between a rock and a hard place is evident, even if you leave amateur psychoanalysis out of the equation. Think about other tennis-playing siblings,including the brothers McEnroe, Emilio and Javier Sanchez, Luke and Murphy Jensen, the Evert clan, the battlin' Maleevas of Bulgaria, the Murrays, Christophe and Oliver Rochus, even the Connorses (John Connors quit the junior game cold when his younger brother Jimmy emerged as the family star). Oddly enough, among the best of those players, the oldest sibling(s) almost always capitulates and yields pride-of-place to a younger, more talent - or is it merely more driven and demanding? -  sibling.

The McEnroes are the glaring exception. And in their case, the genius of older brother John dampened the potential for conflict and, in a neat, subterranean way, justified his determination to keep emotion and sibling issues out of the matter. If your older brother is John McEnroe, you don't beat yourself up over the fact that you're not. Instead, you join the rest of creation in acknowledging his genius and carry yourself with the kind of pride, dignity and good humor that the situation demands. It's easier said than  done, but ho can forget Patrick McEnroe's famous quip, delivered when he reached the penultimate round of the Australian Open in 1991: It's just like you all expected: Edberg, Lendl, McEnroe and Becker. . . That one stays high on my list of all-time favorite tennis quotes for the very reason i cited it here.

But the wild-card factor here is the level the Williams sisters attained, independently. In no other pro tennis family have the players been so danged good at a such a high level - no siblings ever even came close. This is the high altitudes, where the potent mix of courage, will, toughness and absolute determination count for far more than strokework and strategy. The chemical mix that makes up a  dominant champion is highly volatile; if the Williams sisters weren't so careful in how they mixed and handled the ingredients, they might have blown their relationship - perhaps even each other - sky high. But we know now that a few critical, stabilizing elements were added to the mix somewhere along the way. And we all know who added them. It was Venus. I feel like I owe her an apology for not having realized all this before.

It's hard to flat-out claim that Venus's struggles and decline somehow "saved" her relationship with Serena; you know what they say, blood is thicker than Gatorade; maybe it didn't really matter at all. Besides, you can't ever know how things would be different under conditions that never came into play for the obvious reason. But as I look back on it all now, I have a very clear mental image of what is by now a semi-famous video snapshot of Venus sitting in the Player's Box at the U.S.Open, watching Serena become the first Williams girl to win a Grand Slam title (1999). She was wearing a black hooded jacket and peered out from under the sheltering cowl with a pensive, subdued expression.

At the time, I didn't put much stock in the conventional interpretation, that this was a powerful, direct visual statement of disappointment and disillusion, perhaps even anger - the implication being that Venus couldn't come to grips with the fact that Serena, not she, was the first to promised land. But I now think there may have been more truth to the interpretation than I was willing to concede. Most likely, the  unreality of it all was just beginning to sink in. Wait. That's my kid sister, Serena. She is about the win the U.S. Open. Why hadn't I thought of this possibility before?

In other words, she was in a situation that neither John McEnroe nor Chris Evert not anyone else has ever faced. And we're blaming her for appearing subdued?

Venus, we know, bounced back from that experience and  put together some very strong innings of her own. Is anyone crazy enough to suggest that she hasn't had a glittering, Hall of Fame career? But once Venus made her mark, she seemed to embark on a gradual process of withdrawal that, conveniently, cleared one of the more complicated obstacles standing in the way of Serena. None of this could have been planned, because people screw things up and the way this played out was nothing less than organic, seamless, and driven by a powerful if complex internal logic. Ultimately, both women seemed to get a great deal of what they wanted: Serena became da bomb, the athlete-celebrity millions of young girls aspire to becoming. And Venus, well she got to remain the big sister, something that always seemed terribly important to her, probably for reasons we can never know.

But there's an another aspect to this: the fact that in the end truth has been served. For there can no loner by any doubt that Serena may be the greatest pure competitor ever to heft a racquet. And she has achieved that without relying on the virtues that comparable achievers patiently cultivate: consistency, discipline, a streamlined game stripped of fat and flourishes, a view of the game founded on tennis realapolitik. Serena is profligate, wanton, spontaneous and un-self-conscious, an unfocused journeywoman trapped in the mind of a warrior princess with mad crazy skills and plenty of talent left over even after every bad habit, bizarre delusion, self-absorbed fantasy has taken its cut. Trash talk her all you want but beat her? Not in a billion years. She is a preposterous comic book heroine come to life, and who needs the stupid push-up bra?

It will be interesting to see if Venus shows up to act as Serena's coach for the match against Maria Sharapova. If she doesn't, the speculation will start all over again. Not me, though. I'm done with all that.

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