by Pete Bodo
It was the eighth game of the first set, and Serena Williams found herself in a deep hole at 3-4, 15-40 against her sister Venus - a woman who hadn't lost a set at Wimbledon in 34 matches going back to the third round here in 2007. Back in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Richard Williams, their father, was probably checking the oil in his lawn tractor and getting ready to pull the starter cord. He claims to enjoy mowing the lawn, and certainly prefers that bucolic pastime to the agonies of watching his gifted daughters go at it, tooth-and-claw, in yet another major final.
Richard Williams must own the second best lawn in the world, right behind the one to which Venus can claim title, the Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Back in England, Serena was wallowing in the desperate straits that make most players quake in their tennis boots. But Serena seems to experience such moments less as a crisis than an affront (her mantra, learned at the knees of the master, Billie Jean King, is: "pressure is a privilege"), and she reacted as if Venus had scratched her face and pulled out a hank of her hair.
First, she belted a service winner. After her next serve, she flirted with disaster, allowing Venus to get a good, clean look at a wide-open court easily penetrated with a cross-court forehand passing shot. The defending champ drove the shot long, for deuce (As Venus later said, "Yeah, I went for too much. I don't think she was recovering and I thought she was gonna be there. So, yeah, basically just went for a little too much").
Back in Florida, Richard presumably was chugging along, wiping his brow with a hanky while humming a tune, We Are Family, perhaps?
Inspired by the narrow escape, Serena stepped up and hit a 105 mph ace wide, and followed on with a 116 mph screamer right down the center pipe to level the match at 4-all (Serena would tag 12 aces on the day, not bad for a 7-6 (3), 6-2 match that lasted under an hour-and-a-half). So Richard was mowing the grass, and half a world away, Serena was leaving burn marks on it. All in all, it was another happy family Saturday for the Williamses, filled with pleasant pursuits like gardening and battling for Grand Slam event titles.
Once that critical game got away from her, Venus' game dipped. She held serve alright, but in the ensuing tiebreaker she yielded a mini-break that foretold her doom (she lost the tiebreaker, 7-3). Having surrendered her first set at Wimbledon since forever, she began pressing, in a way that Serena loves to be pushed. It takes Venus-grade courage and power to challenge Serena to direct, power-based baseline rallies, and Venus was made to pay for doing it. Her fate was sealed with a critical double-fault that gave Serena a 4-2 lead; she wouldn't lose another game.
Some spectators, here and around the world, undoubtedly thought this match boring. The reporter sitting next to me in the Centre Court press box said as much, whereupon, as if on cue, a security guard stationed at the far end of the court swooned on his feet and hit the ground with a resounding thud. He was quickly carried out (I certainly hope it was nothing worse than a fainting spell), and the brief interruption was over - Serena and Venus went back at it, trading fierce groundstrokes and ground-shaking serves that kept the rallies short if not exactly.
I'm not in the "boring" camp when it comes to these all-Williams matches, for two reasons:
1. I prefer tennis that has a clean, logical narrative; it seems far more dramatic and even artful than the all-too-common WTA shootouts (albeit with popguns rather than Williams-style cannon). Trading breaks like Pokemon cards drains the structure of a match, at which point you're left to watch mere rallying contests, unless you're unlucky enough to see those devolve into melodramatic races to see who can make the most stupid errors - and then pull a long face that travels in broadcasting circles under the name "disappointment," but is more likely to make me think, "farce."
As Venus said in her post-match presser: "I think the big difference between her and, you know, me also when we play people, is just the serve. You know, there are women out there who also can serve big. We serve big, but we also serve very effectively, especially off the first serve. It seems like when we need that first serve, most of the time it's there."
Watching the Williams sisters is an agreeable experience for me because they play tennis with the same mentality as the men, and a satisfying degree of power and aggression. I'd be ashamed to admit that on vaguely sexist grounds - were it not for the fact that tennis is about winning, and that's what the Williamses do best, ensuring that we can't condescend or make excuses for them as we so often do on behalf other WTA regulars.
2. That subdued, almost somnolent atmosphere that surrounds so many matches between the sisters isn't a signal that their tennis, or even their odd and difficult family rivalry, is less than exciting. That atmosphere must flourish wherever something (in this case, kinship) sets certain, probably subconscious boundaries on the familiar emotional displays and advertisements of truculence that inject all other matches with a kind of energy and accessible appeal.
I broached that subject in the newly crowned champion's presser, albeit from a different angle more pertinent to the kinship between the girls. I asked if Serena ever had to catch herself and consciously suppress the urge to shake a fist or issue one of those familiar, guttural war shrieks out of deference to her sister.
She said: "No, I didn't catch myself. I was really excited when I won the first set, and then a couple points before that, before the first set. After that I really wanted to stay calm because I felt like I was getting closer to the goal, and I didn't want to get. . .sometimes if I get too pumped or if I grunt too loud I lose. I just want to stay relaxed, stay calm, and stay focused more than anything."
But here was another factor at work in this area as well. I don't know if Serena watched Andy Roddick's win yesterday, but today she seemed bent on cultivating a comparable degree of serenity and focus. Of this she said, "Well, actually, you know, this is one of the few times I didn't expect to come out with the win today. I felt like I had nothing to lose. . . I felt like all I had to do is go out there and do my best, you know, just stay even, because she's such a good player. When I won that first set, I was like, Wow, this is great. No matter what, I'm a set away. So I was just trying to relax."
As hard as the girls try, and as expertly as they play, there probably always will be an air of inhibition about their meetings that even the ferocity of their will or shots can't completely puncture. That's the price you pay for what is without doubt the most extraordinary biographical history in all of sports.
One note on strategy, though: I felt Venus might have been better served had she thrown in a few odd looks and tricks, for she was playing the most superb shot-maker of this and perhaps any generation. Venus accurately described herself as "More of a shover than a slider," confessing a reluctance to use the slice to greater advantage - even in situations where it's tenable. "I have a great slice," she said. "I just. . .I don't know. . . I'm a shover. Some people push, but I shove. That's my mentality. I have to just hit, and I can't help it. It's just hard to change my mind. So will I slice one day? Probably. But if I have a chance to hit it or slice it, I'm gonna hit it."
But as fleet and rangy as she is, it seems that Venus could really profit (at least on this surface) from trying to make her sister hit from awkward or stretched positions, especially if she's put under threat of attack.
Serena's presser, by the way, was an illuminating and at times rollicking one, from the moment she walked into the interview room wearing a white t-shirt with a question posed in pink lettering across her bosom: Are You Looking at My Titles?
But the high point was an extended discussion of that issue that just won't die and go away, the ranking system - particularly the fact that Dinara Safina is a major-less No. 1, and there doesn't seem to be much that Serena (now the holder of three of the four Grand Slam titles) can do about it. Venus frostily ripped into a reporter on this subject the other day. Today, Serena fresh off earning her 11th career major, chose to go the droll route. This dialog with reporters was rendered in a lighthearted manner:
Q: How much of a motivation is it for you to try and regain the world No. 1 ranking?
A: "You know, I'm not super motivated. I think if you hold three Grand Slam titles maybe you should be No. 1, but not on the WTA Tour obviously, so. . .You know, my motivation is maybe just to win another Grand Slam and stay No. 2, I guess (laughter).
Q: Does that disappoint you?
A: "No. If it did, I would go crazy just thinking about it. I think anyone really could. That's just shocking. But whatever. It is what it is. I'd rather definitely be No. 2 and hold three Grand Slams in the past year than be No. 1 and not have any."
Q: Do you see yourself as No. 1?
A: "I see myself as No. 2. That's where I am. I think Dinara did a great job to get to No. 1. She won Rome and Madrid."
If she had any more to say on the subject, it was drowned out by peals of laughter.
And somewhere in the Williams' Florida compound, Richard was probably putting the finishing touches on the most lovingly tended lawn on that side of the Atlantic.