Williams Bowl XXV

by: Peter Bodo | August 09, 2014

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Venus defeated her sister for the first time since 2009 in Saturday's semifinal. (AP Photo)

“I told her, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything (about how you should play Serena) unless you want me to,’” David Witt, the coach of Venus Williams, told a television interviewer shortly before the sisters met in the semifinals of the Montreal WTA tournament.

“She didn’t want me to say anything, so I just finally told her, ‘go out there and have some fun.’”

Venus went out there and (presumably) had some “fun,” if defeating your kid sister can be described as such. Let’s remember, that never was delineated as an agreeable experience for either woman in this odd rivalry. Think about it: Cain and Abel notwithstanding, sibling-hood injects something repugnant and not-quite-authentic into our ideas of what makes for a good rivalry. At least that’s how it is in an enterprise as harshly confrontational as tennis, where there’s just one winner and nowhere to hide for the loser.

This awkward condition has been a problem in most of the 24 previous meetings between 34-year old Venus and 32-year old Serena. And if Williams Bowl XXV could give us anything new, anything different in the twilight of these two careers, it would be a match that was just plain good, free from spooky mental resonances, resistant to the ruminations of armchair psychologists tossing around the concept of sibling rivalry like a kid playing with a tennis ball.

And this, the 25th meeting of these extraordinary sisters, provided that. And in so doing it furnished a bit of well-earned payback for the elder Williams. Venus trailed in the rivalry 10-14, and always seemed the one more disturbed by the prospect of fighting a family member for a trophy. In fact, she often alluded to her role as the benevolent, nurturing older sister—the caretaker who felt obliged to allow her sibling to have her way because it would be better for everyone that way.

In truth, there seemed something slightly disingenuous in that analysis, whatever version was put forth by any number of authors. But the flat nature of so many of those 24 previous matches suggested that something truly was not quite right.

Today, something was very right. There were no psycho-dramatic overtones, perhaps because both of these women are fully mature. There were no braids flying around, occasionally shedding red, white, and blue beads that ricocheted around the court like BBs. There were no “biker boots” or black-leather bustiers, nor any red-and-black frilly couture like you might have found on a tart in a saloon in the wild west. There were just two aging champions, dressed in plain work clothes. Sisters, going at it hammer and tong.

Venus won it, 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-3, in a shade over two hours. The usual suspects surely leaped to their feet and cried foul when Serena appeared to donate the final game of the second set to Venus, via two double faults followed by an egregious serve return (Serena looked as if she were trying to shoo off a fly, not return a 115 M.P.H. serve). But the far-fetched idea that Serena was “allowing” her poor misbegotten sister a set would have been more credible had she then rolled through the final set.

No, what happened today is that Venus played Serena as if Serena were a Maria Sharapova or an Agnieszka Radwanska, and she had one important advantage that neither of those other WTA stars, nor any other one, has: Venus isn’t afraid of or intimidated by Serena, vulnerable as she and everyone else is to the world No. 1’s lethal game. Serena is her sister. They’ve slept in the same bed. There’s nothing scary about her to Venus, and therefore nothing to make Venus wonder if she can really do it.

The way Venus did it was fetching. She converted four of the eight break points she faced, and won seven of the points that found her at the net. On a day when Serena hit 19 aces, Venus handled the shots that weren’t aces, as well as the routine groundstrokes, expertly.

In the past few years, I always felt that Venus’ game looked ragged, as if she’d lost the disciplined strokes and shotmaking she once possessed. When she’d hit her forehand, too often her arm tended to flop around like a barn door off one of its hinges. I’m not sure what the opposite of “grooved” is, but it would describe Venus’ strokes. Her serve has always been magnificent, yet you could see her dart around after it like a lepidopterist trying to capture a new specimen.

That wasn’t the case today. “I think I’m better physically and mentally,” she declared after the match, a reference partly to her battle with the auto-immune disease she has, Sjogren’s syndrome. “I’ve been working hard, and mentally I’m feeling better.”

That “working hard” part seemed especially relevant on a day when her winner-to-unforced error ratio was almost identical to Serena’s (23-20 for Venus, 35-32 for Serena), and she hit her forehand more firmly, accurately, and lethally than I can remember.

As for Serena, the stony look on her face for most of the match, those frequent moments when it seemed like her feet had sprouted roots, the critical double faults that are a de facto slap to the face of her outstanding serve—all those things might have been put down in another time and another place, many other times and many other places, to symptoms of the unique situation into which these sisters were thrust from the time they were still deep into their teens.

But we’ve seen Serena floundering for too long now to put much stock in that theory. Serena has been woefully lacking in confidence, her energy apparently bottled up and corked by fear, bouts of anger and frustration alternating with spasms of self-pity so dolorous that it brings tears welling up. This is Serena Williams in mid-2014, and she doesn’t have all that much time to blast her way out of the funk before the U.S. Open.

For that reason, this match had to be a bitter pill to swallow. Yet when you think of all the times Serena clobbered Venus, especially those times when she was in one of her fugue states, ripping off wins faster than a kid tearing the wrapping off Christmas presents, you might sense that there was a little bit of poetic justice in play today. Perhaps it was yet another reality check for a woman unaccustomed to be at the receiving end of payback.

Before the match, Venus had said: “I have to play well. That's pretty much it. There's no secret or science to it. I think that anyone who has gotten any wins against her, they've pretty much played the match of their life. Hopefully I won't have to play the match of my life. That's tough. But I need to play well.”

Venus did indeed play well. She may not have played the match of her life (for my money, she did that in the Wimbledon final with Lindsay Davenport in 2005), but she probably turned this into the best match of this sometimes painful rivalry. It appeared that Venus set sisterhood aside, and it felt a lot like she’d earned the right to do that, and made the most of it.

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