Williams Family Woodshed

by: Peter Bodo | June 30, 2009

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88759111 by Pete Bodo

You know women's tennis - or women tennis pros, at any rate - are in trouble when their players start using Grand Slam trophies as makeup brush holders, the way Serena Williams says she does. You have to wonder, what next? Using the French Open trophy as a vide poche? A planter, for growing tomatoes on your deck? A spittoon, if you travel in that sort of company?

Today at Wimbledon, Venus and Serena each took the penultimate step to a rematch of their final here last year. They did it so convincingly that even the customarily jaded British pressmen were left delivering eloquent encomiums impersonating questions pertaining to the outright superiority of the Williams sisters. Okay, so the British press is Wimbledentric, and wouldn't know Roland Garros from an obscure French aviator. But the way Venus and Serena - always lightning rods for disgruntlement or criticism - had them eating out of their hands confirmed the Any Questions? nature of the way they've been playing here during the fortnight.

It doesn't make much sense to try to analyze the way Venus dismantled Agnieszka Radwanska, or how powerfully Serena dismissed the latest WTA upstart, Victoria Azarenka. It would be like trying to write about how a massive tidal wave took out a tiny village filled with half-clothed natives (which is exactly what Wimbledon village itself looks like, in the midst of this heat wave), or wasting adjectives on the explosion of a power plant that leveled four square miles of shopping malls, car dealerships and apartment towers. How many synonyms are there for "commanding" or "powerful" or "awesome?"

On Thursday, Venus plays Dinara Safina and Serena will meet Elena Dementieva, with the finals berths on offer. It's pretty hard to imagine that Wimbledon will have its first all-Russian final; more likely that Wimbledon will see a two-for-the-price-of-one execution.

One of the themes emerging from this edition of the Championships is that the Williamses may have gotten better with age, even as they've had to struggle with (or simply endure) waning motivation as the siren song of "normal" life has lured them toward the shoals of inconsistency. The girls may not be as reliably destructive as they once were, but when they paint on their game faces, they may be playing the best tennis either of them has ever conjured up. This may not be true at all tournaments, either, but if you're going to pick one event at which to go medieval on your rivals, this one would be it.

We know for a fact that Serena had lain in ambush, waiting for Azarenka for a few months now, ever since the hot-headed and increasingly hot-handed Belarusian by way of Scottsdale, Ariz., snatched the Key Biscayne title out of her hands. This we know because Serena admitted as much in the presser after she took Azarenka to the Williams family woodshed for a 6-2, 6-3 beating.

"Well, you know, I really wanted to do well today," Serena admitted. "I didn't do well the last time we played. I was not feeling great. And, uhm, you know, I felt like I really wanted to show up today."

And while Venus had no such grudge against Radwanska, she was just as harsh with the willow switch, even though she gave up two more games than did Serena, winning 6-1, 6-2.

That tells me Aggie better watch out when she next meets Venus, just in case the older Williams sister took it personally.

88758944 We know the Williams sisters well enough by now to understand that as stony and opaque they can be on the heels of a loss or a particularly tough match, they're relaxed and, if not exactly verbose, at least amiable and light-hearted when they win. Either of them would have been justified doing standup comedy when the post-mortems were being conducted today. Venus was asked to recall the night she played her first pro match, in Oakland, Calif., and the outstanding thing she recalled was that as she arrived at the venue she realized that she'd left all her tennis clothes laid out on the bed back at the hotel. 

It's been a long time since that wild-card appearance in 1994, and Venus has matured a good deal. Given her obvious physical gifts - starting with that impressive, lean frame - it's easy to overlook how many other components are required for the degree of success she's had. We tend not to contemplate these factors, perhaps because Venus' God-given advantage already appears to give her a formidable edge. For one thing, it takes enormous resilience (as well as basic emotional stability) to dig yourself out of some of the career holes she's fallen into. For another, a mastery of strategy doesn't necessarily involve chalkboards, a blizzard of diagrams and X's and O's. Most hugely accomplished people will tell you that it's not all that complicated: success consists mostly of a kind of shrewdness that enables you to remain true to yourself and resist the burgeoning temptation to complicate things - whether it's because of pressure from others, or your own impulse to teach yourself a lesson.

Ultimately, success is about knowing what you want and figuring out a way to get it, and that's a pretty good description of how Venus and Serena approach their tennis. As Venus said, when she was asked to describe her style of play: "Just very aggressive. There's more room for error than maybe before, but just very aggressive. I do have strategy. Maybe it doesn't look like it, but I do. I think that's my secret weapon, that it doesn't look like I'm thinking, but I am."

That's about as close to getting philosophical as either of the sisters will go and that's probably a good thing. Nostalgia is something else, although Serena made a point of explaining that she doesn't really want to stop to smell the tennis roses until her career is done - that's when she'll take those trophies, remove the makeup brushes, dust, polish, and line them up on the credenza. Still, I pressed the issue with a simple question: Does she consider herself a better player than she was during those glorious "Serena Slam" years (2002-'03)?

She said, "I think, you know, you can't be just a shot-maker, just a power maker, and win any Grand Slams. I think it definitely takes, you know, a lot of strategy and strategic moves.  Definitely underestimated, but it's fine."

It was an interesting remark, given what Venus had said earlier. Perhaps the girls huddled over Venus' interview transcript between pressers, and decided to cover some of the same turf. 

The Williams have never been much for verbal smack downs, even when they're too busy berating themselves when they ought to be praising opponents. They do have a pretty good feel for innuendo, but the acerbic or trenchant quip has never been their domain. But when Serena was asked which trophies make the best makeup-brush holders, she didn't miss a beat:

"My Indian Wells '03 (smiling). Or was it '01? Whatever year that was."

Ouch! It was '01, Serena, but we know that for someone like you, they all tend to run together.

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