“It’s definitely been a while,” Serena said of the meetings that were once routine but ended at the 2003 Wimbledon, when she won her second title in a row here against older sister Venus. “Unfortunately our ranking fell. We’ve been on the same side of the draw a few times. I unfortunately lost a lot. But it’s good. I mean, this is a new start for us.”
Somehow the sisters, raised in Compton, California, have managed to navigate the complicated family dynamics to grow closer even as they pile on Grand Slam titles – often at the expense of one another.
“I think that we share even more things together off the court,” said Venus, who is sharing an apartment with Serena while in England and playing with her sister in the women’s doubles draw, the finals of which they reached on Friday. “We definitely rely on each other’s advice even more. … We both now know our roles in the relationship, and we support each other.”
Family allegiances have not stopped their march through the draw this year. Both won convincingly in Thursday’s semifinals. Venus stopped fifth-seeded Elena Dementieva of Russia 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), and Serena defeated unseeded Jie Zheng of China 6-2, 7-6 (7-5). Neither has lost a set.
Now it’s a question of putting aside family. “It’s really just about wanting the best for your sister and just really wanting to see her do well — until she plays you, obviously,” smiled Venus, who is 15 months older and is more circumspect than her extroverted sister.
They have met 15 times, with Serena leading 8-7 but more tellingly 5-1 in Grand Slam finals. They first faced off in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open (Venus won). Their latest encounter was in the semifinals of an event at Bangalore, India, which Serena won 7-6 in the third set. Venus leads in Wimbledon titles (4-2), and Serena owns more majors overall (8-6).
Their meetings have featured everything from tears (Serena sniveled at the end of her loss in the ’00 Wimbledon semifinals) to blowouts (Venus’ 6-2, 6-4 win at the ’01 U.S. Open) to the occasional seesaw battle (such as Serena’s 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-4 victory at the 2003 Australian Open).
In their last Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 2003, Venus tore her stomach muscle in the semifinal against Kim Clijsters and refused to throw in the towel. She played the final but it cost her the rest of the season.
Venus dominated most of their early encounters, winning five of the first seven. Serena then took over, nabbing six in a row during her “Serena Slam” of 2002-03, when the sisters met in four consecutive major finals.
“I had just came off of a couple years of just winning everything,” explained Venus of the back-and-forth dynamic. “I was tired. And then she had come off a couple years of not winning everything and she was more pumped. So it was kind of like this, you know, balance of her going up and me kind of being a little tired, a little burned out probably.”
Only Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert (14) and Steffi Graf-Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (seven) have contested more Grand Slam finals in the Open era (since 1968). But most all-Williams affairs have been awkward and filled with errors that neither fans nor the sisters have seemed fully able to embrace.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that they will actually play well, both of them,” says ESPN’s Patrick McEnroe, citing their added years of experience and multiple Grand Slam titles.
As erratic as Venus, 28, has been coming into Wimbledon in recent years, she hits another level on grass, not unlike Pete Sampras. She can punch holes in opponents with her 120-mph serves, scoop balls out of the corners with her reach and end points with her net skills. If she wins, three of Venus’ last six titles will be All-England Club trophies.
Serena, 26, also has had her ups and downs. Like her sister, the eight-time Slam champ has battled injuries, illness and periodic lapses of commitment. She has won just two majors since 2003, the 2005 and 2007 Australian Open. But she has more consistently gone deep at majors and won tournaments, including three this season.
“We’ve both been working extremely hard,” said Serena. “It’s just coming together.”
The touchy topic of whether all-Williams matches are somehow pre-determined – an accusation never substantiated – resurfaced when Dementieva said in her post-match press conference that the outcome of Saturday’s final would be a “family decision.” The women’s tour later issued a statement from Dementieva signed by hand.
“English is not my first language and I apologize for not speaking it better,” it read. “I do not think for one second that matches between Serena and Venus Williams are family decisions.”
Venus took umbrage when the idea was broached in her press conference.
“Well, the main thing is that I find the question pretty offensive because I’m extremely professional in everything that I do on and off the court,” she said. “I contribute my best in my sport, and I also have a ton of respect for myself and my family. So any mention of that is extremely disrespectful for who I am, what I stand for, and my family. That’s pretty much how I feel about the whole subject.”
The subject of whether another Williams family Grand Slam final can produce great tennis, however, remains on the table. Partly because their games are so similar, Sister Act XVI isn’t going to produce any surprises. Both will have to serve well and attack on returns to get the upper hand in points and try to bludgeon each other from the backcourt.
“There are no secrets,” says Tracy Austin, who is calling women’s matches for BBC television. “It’s going to be a slugfest, and a slugfest from the baseline. There isn’t going to be much versatility. There won’t be many slices or serving and volleying. There will be no Plan B. It’s just who is executing the big groundstrokes.”
Still, they unanimity of styles isn’t the only reason many think the most remarkable sister act in sports hasn’t always been easy on the eyes. If the athleticism has always been there, the psychology of siblinghood has at times seemed to play a role.
Patrick McEnroe can relate, having followed his older brother, John, a seven-time major winner, onto the circuit in the late 1980s. Though they met only three times and on far smaller stages (all won by older brother John), Patrick recalls it as a strange confluence of feelings.
“It’s a conundrum of emotions,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s hard to pinpoint. It’s hard to describe. It’s just in your head how your sibling will handle it, whether it’s victory, defeat, embarrassment, all that.”
Two-time U.S. Open winner Austin, whose older siblings Pam and Jeff were also pro tennis players, says it “definitely has to be strange.”
“I would think that it would become a little bit easier, but I don’t know if you ever become completely comfortable,” said Austin.
What makes it all the more remarkable, adds Austin, is that they are so close, even at this rarefied level. So much so when Serena looked up at the players’ box after her semifinal win Thursday, whom did she see with her parents but Venus, the person who stands in the way of her third Wimbledon title.
“They practice together, they are sharing an apartment here together, giggle together, play doubles together,” says Austin. “How do you go out and play someone you love so much and try to beat them up? It’s a situation we don’t see anywhere in sport or life.”
However they do it, the sisters seem capable of disassociating familial ties with personal ambitions. Neither shied away Thursday from admitting how bad they want another Wimbledon title, especially after poor French Open performances.
“It’s every Williams for them self,” said Venus.
“We’re good at this now,” chimed in Serena of the rivalry that began a decade ago. “We just leave everything out on the court. This is the finals of Wimbledon. Who doesn’t want it?”
After such a long hiatus and on their best surface, this time the titillating build-up might match the expectations.
“You hope they both play well at the same time, because if they do it could be an incredible match,” says McEnroe.
No matter what the outcome, one family dynamic is assured: The Williams’ decade of dominance at Wimbledon will rumble on with a seventh championship in nine years.
Watch Wimbledon’s Women’s Finals Live Saturday 9am-2pm EST on NBC