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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Venus cracks in final act

Photo Titled Final hug
Final hug

It is rare for Venus and Serena Williams to need time apart from one another. But in the moments after the younger sibling became the new Wimbledon champion and the two sisters embraced at the net, that was when the moment came.

Just for a minute or maybe two, they needed space from one another. Serena waved and bowed to the crowd, hand on her heart and then her forehead, struggling to take in her first Wimbledon win in six years.

Venus, the vanquished champion who had planned on taking a sixth title today, sat in her chair at courtside staring one of those thousand-mile stares that come to us all now and again when we think on what might have been. Her face was utterly drained at the knowledge that the prize that most defines her had been taken away.

So much of the sisters’ lives are metaphorically entwined. They are endlessly compared, endlessly contrasted, endlessly mentioned in the same breath. And today they lined up for their 11th Grand Slam face-off, with the Williams monopoly of women’s tennis still going strong a decade after it began.

Waiting to go on court the two of them looked tense, carefully not looking at one another, minds focused on the serious business ahead. When battle commenced, the first set was fittingly intense. It seemed appropriate given the potency of their mutual relationship, and the huge degree of public attention always focused on them whenever they play one another.

Sometimes it seems that we who watch demand of these sibling encounters a standard of tennis we rarely require from other matches. We constantly insist that they “prove” to us they are really trying when they face one another across the net, especially when the most glittering prizes are at stake. Neither is permitted a bad day at the office. There must always be some deep dark meaning behind the failure of either to produce their best.

For long periods of the first set there was not much between them. Rallies tended to be short, punctuated by a few powerful exchanges where each had the other running from side to side of the court. But what was really noticeable was the way Serena was serving.

Perhaps mindful of the fact that her 20 aces in her semi-final against Elena Dementieva kept her in that match at the most critical moments, she easily and quite unexpectedly out-aced her older sister, amassing eight to Venus’ one in that first set.

Venus could hardly take a point from Serena’s serve, and it became increasingly clear that if the set went as far as the tiebreak Serena would be in good shape. But when Venus had her chance to prevent the set running its full course – with two break points at 4-3 – she failed to convert. The tiebreak came and Serena bludgeoned her way through it, finishing off with a beautifully judged lob to take it 7-3.

From the guest box the sisters were watched as usual by the calm presence of their mother Oracene Price. As usual, their father Richard Williams was absent, having long held a policy that he never watches his daughters on those occasions when they play each other. (“My work is done,” he likes to say.) But a great battery of former women’s champions here were present in the Royal Box including Billie-Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Ann Jones, Christine Janes, Angela Barrett and Maria Bueno. Incongruously among them, the Hollywood star Ben Stiller was also a Royal Box guest.

They watched a second set where it soon became clear that Venus – so dominant throughout these Championships – was rapidly losing confidence. Her key weapon, her serve, was losing speed, while Serena was continuing to amass aces without double faults. At 2-3 a Venus mis-hit off the frame of her racket brought up Serena’s first chance to break in the entire match.

In the event she did not need to do anything to convert it, because Venus delivered a double fault. Invulnerable to mental pressure in any other match throughout the fortnight, she could not hold it together at the crucial moment against her sister.

Not since the Wimbledon final of 2006 (between Justine Henin and victorious Amelie Mauresmo) has a women’s Grand Slam decider gone to a third set. The chance of such an event here was receding by the moment as the confidence of Venus crumbled visibly. At 2-5 came a succession of four separate Championship points. Three went by, but the last was too much.

Serena sank to her knees and perhaps that was the moment when the two of them were briefly separated – one the victor, one the vanquished, the indivisible divided just for now.

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