Fun and games

Products of an indomitable spirit, Serena and Venus Williams captivated the world once again

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NEW YORK – The tennis match between sisters was dramatic and wonderful, but it wasn’t exactly competitive, not in the way that we would normally use that word. “Competitive” suggests evenness, suggests that Serena Williams and Venus Williams played at the same level for long periods of time. There was actually not very much of that on this muggy Tuesday night in New York.

First, Serena was incandescent. Then she went on walkabout. Then she steeled her will.

First Venus was overmatched. Then she found the pounding rhythm of her youth. Then she was out of breath.

This wasn’t a tango, with the Williams sisters dancing in harmony. Serena won the first set 6-2. Venus won the second set 6-1. Serena clinched the match with a professional 6-3. This wasn’t a dance at all; it was more like the after-hour jam sessions that used to happen in Kansas City bars long after the doors closed; the greatest jazz musicians of the time would try to top each other with their solos. And that’s what this was, the two greatest tennis sopranos of the last 20 years exchanging arias. Before almost every point, someone in the crowd would shout “Come on, Venus!” and this would trigger a few people to counter “Come on, Serena!” and this would release a few more “Come on, Venus.” The two versions of “Come on” never seemed to overlap.

Then, the wonder of this match had little to do with pure competition. Thirteen years ago, almost to the day, I walked around these grounds at Flushing Meadows with Richard Williams. Well, it wasn’t just me and him; it was me, him and half of New York. Still, it was quite a scene.

“You did it, Richard!” a fan yelled at him.

“Yes,” Richard shouted. “We sure did.”

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The story was still somewhat new then … or, anyway, it was new enough that it still boggled the mind. In the years since then, the story of how Richard Williams raised Serena and Venus into two of the greatest tennis players of all time – with Serena now making an almost incontrovertible case as the best — has been lost in that morass of known history. Once we’ve heard something too many times, it loses its power as most elementary school children learn when history teachers make Washington at Valley Forge sound about as interesting as meatloaf.

Think about this for a moment as you might before you knew what Serena and Venus would become. Richard Williams knew nothing at all about tennis. The way he told the story was this: He was at home one day in 1980 and he was idly watching a tennis match. He saw someone win the match and win a $30,000 check. Sometimes, the story is told that it was a $40,000 check.

“Not bad for a day’s work,” the announcer said.

“Not bad at all,” Williams said. “That’s more than I make in a year.” And, again, as he told it, he went to his new wife, Oracene, and said, “We’ve got to make two more kids and make them tennis players”

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The details of the story are not entirely consistent with reality. It seems likely, based on the timing, that he was watching the tennis finals in a Salt Lake City event called the “U.S. Women’s Games.” It was sort of a mini-Olympics, with swimming, diving, gymnastics, volleyball, distance running and so on. A hard-serving Romanian named Virginia Ruzici beat Ivanna Madruga to cash in a $10,000 winner’s check. Well, it’s still a lot of money. Also, Venus was already born; Serena would be born a year later.

But if some of the details have been lost through the years, the narrative itself remains. Richard became obsessed with tennis. Maybe the sport just looked easy to him. Maybe there seemed something romantic about the game, something that was very different from the family’s life in Compton. And maybe Richard Williams is just a dreamer. He’s always told stories – some of them true, many of them not – about his own childhood, his own athletic achievements, his own successes. He began to read every tennis article he could find, he began to watch tennis instruction videos for tips, he began to hit dead tennis balls against a wall for hours at a time.

And he hatched a plan to raise his daughters into the best tennis players in the world. It was a detailed plan. He scheduled every part of their days. He determined their diets. He personally took them out to the tennis courts, swept away the broken glass, and fed them lifeless 10-cent tennis balls he had purchased at a Compton sporting goods store. People thought he was crazy, of course. Somehow this only made him more determined.

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Is Richard Williams crazy? Is he brilliant? Well, Williams has never been an easy character to pin down. “I’m a great admirer of Dr. (Martin Luther) King,” he once told the writer Tom Friend, “and an unbelievable admirer of Don King.”

But the one thing that is certain is that Richard and his then-wife Oracene really did raise the two best tennis players in the world. He provided the feverish ambition and obsessive drive. She instilled the extreme self-confidence champions must have. “They weren’t allowed to say ‘can’t,’” Oracene told Oprah Winfrey. “I didn’t allow them to say that because I didn’t want them to set limitations for themselves.”

That day in 2002 when I followed Richard around, Serena was the No. 1-ranked tennis player, Venus was No. 2. As I wrote at the time: Nobody was third. At that moment, the sisters were in the middle of one of the most extraordinary streaks in sports history, something you could call the Serenus Slam or the Venusa Slam or something. In the four majors from the 2002 French Open through the 2003 Australian Open, they played each other in the finals all four times.

Think about that for a moment. Think about Richard Williams, on that cracked hard court in Compton, sweat pouring off him as he hits ball after ball to his two tiny daughters. Think about Oracene refusing to let them doubt their golden future for even a moment. And then, a few years later, they played each other in four straight grand slam finals.

In case you haven’t seen the list, here are all the grand slam finals where Serena and Venus have faced each other:

2001 U.S. Open: Venus in straight sets.

2002 French Open: Serena in straight sets.

2002 Wimbledon: Serena in straight sets.

2002 U.S. Open: Serena in straight sets

2003 Australian Open: Serena in three sets.

2003 Wimbledon: Serena in three sets.

2008 Wimbledon: Venus in straight sets.

2009 Wimbledon: Serena in straight sets

Look at that – and those are just the finals. They’ve met seven other times in grand slams, including in Tuesday’s quarterfinal at the U.S. Open. That day in New York in 2002, when the mania was at its height, Richard Williams was wandering around, accepting the congratulations, taking in where his crazy dream had taken him. “Isn’t this fun?” he shouted, and then again. “ISN’T THIS FUN?”

* * *

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Venus and Serena changed the sport with the way they played. Venus hit tennis balls harder than any woman who had come along before her. Serena came along and hit the ball even harder. The rest of the world had to catch up and even now, more than a dozen years later, the world still has not caught up. Tuesday night, the sisters blasted shots at each other that, even in the hard-hitting days of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles and Lindsey Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, would have been unimaginable. Some of this is evolution. Tennis racket technology has evolved. Workout regimens have evolved. The style of play in tennis has evolved. But the Williams sisters are not an evolution. They are a revolution.

Of course, this U.S. Open – like this whole year of tennis – is not really about the Williams sisters. It is about Serena. She is going for the first Grand Slam since Graf in 1988. She is going for the exclamation point on the greatest career in the history of women’s tennis. No one is in her class now, not even her older sister. There was a time when Venus and Serena could hit the high notes together. They played each other 19 times between the Australian Open in 1998 and Key Biscayne in 2009. Venus won 10 of the 19 times.

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But that’s about when Serena took off again, leaving everyone in the world behind. She has beaten Venus seven of the eight times they have played since then, including all three times at major championships. Tuesday was typical of Serena’s unmatchable brilliance. The first set, Serena was in full flight. Venus was actually quite good. “In the very first game, I knew she was playing well,” Serena said. But Serena was focused, hitting winner after winner, making no mistakes, overpowering her powerful sister. Venus probably would have won that first set against any other player in the world. But she did not come close against Serena.

The second set, Serena began making mistakes. This is part of what makes her such a compelling champion right now; she will play invincible tennis and then, suddenly, descend into spectacular funks where nothing works. Shot after shot cracked the top of the net and fell back. Venus continued playing as well as she has in years. She won the set going away.

The third set, Serena took hold. There wasn’t anything theatrical about it. “She has the ability to come up with a great shot when she needs it,” Venus said. “That’s just been the hallmark of her game.” Serena won the big points and the match.

The sisters embraced at the net, with the loser smiling more than the winner. They don’t like talking about it much, but these matches obviously take the life out of both of them. They grew up with the same dream, and they’ve both lived that out dream. But it is Serena who is best. And that is something both have had to deal with in their own way. All those years ago, when Venus and Serena were both on top of the world, Richard Williams shouted “Isn’t this fun?”

Tuesday, with Richard Williams at home in Florida, Serena Williams was asked what was the most satisfying part of this emotional night in New York.

“Walking off the court,” she said, “and it being over with.”