The Princess & The Warrior
The princess and the warrior
By Cynthia Faulkner and Greg Garber
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- What began as a playtime character choice in the Williams family back yard has become a way to see the subtle differences in Serena and Venus Williams' high-powered version of tennis.
"I don't expect anything to be easy for me on the court," Venus Williams says.
Venus -- the strategist using every hefty weapon in her arsenal to win, and baby sis -- her Serene Highness -- setting high standards and berating herself on court when they are not met. Despite a different mental approach, both have the same goal: to always win.
And lately, for anyone else on the tour, it hasn't been anything close to a fair fight. Heading into the U.S. Open that begins on Monday, Venus and Serena Williams have won seven of the past 12 Grand Slam singles titles. They are overwhelming favorites to make it eight of 13. Tiger Woods, it is worth noting, was 7-for-12 in Slams but failed to go 8-for-13 in the PGA Championship.
With wins in the past two Slam events, the French Open and Wimbledon, Serena, 20, has risen to No. 1 in the world. Venus, 22, who won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, is No. 2.
Quite frankly, this is causing some morale problems among the troops.
Earlier this week at New Haven's Pilot Pen tournament, Jelena Dokic was asked if opponents of the Williams sisters feel defeated even before they hit the first ball. Dokic, ranked No. 4 in the world, offered an answer of what appeared to be extraordinary honesty: "Sometimes, when the Williams sisters are in the draw, you sort of say, 'Well, maybe a semi or a final would be good.'
"Maybe some in the top 10 think they have a chance, but I think a lot of players maybe get a little bit scared. It's a different game. With the Williams sisters, it's power. If they're on, it's impossible to beat them. You have to hope the sisters have a bad day right now."
Lindsay Davenport, who is returning from knee surgery, seems to relish her burgeoning role as the WTA Tour's unofficial scoldmeister. She appeared to be appalled by Dokic's remarks.
"That's a pretty bad attitude if you have that," Davenport said. "They are obviously the best players in the world. There's no doubt about that and you can't run from that. But, you know, it's tennis. They are human.
"It's not like they are superwomen, but they are obviously head and shoulders above the rest of the players right now. But I don't believe -- that could be (Dokic's) view -- but I wouldn't take that as the view of the players."
Meghann Shaughnessy, a pretty fair player herself, won exactly one point on Venus' serve in the first set of their second-round 6-2, 6-4 match at Pilot Pen. One.
"She came out playing really well," Shaughnessy said. "There wasn't much I could do."
Venus, to her credit, did her best to downplay Dokic's remarks.
"Well, I don't expect anything to be easy for me on the court," she said in New Haven. "I expect a certain amount from myself -- to play well and compete well -- but I don't hope someone gives it to me.
With the Williams sisters in the draw, sometimes a semi is a good result, Jelena Dokic says.
"I started on the bottom. I started with no ranking, and I've worked my way to the top. I give 100 percent when I'm out there. I expect (Dokic), and all the other players, they respect me also -- just as a competitor."
In their early days on the Tour, the older sister was the inspiration for the younger. Today, it seems, the younger sister has unwittingly returned the favor. Serena's success seems to be providing new motivation for Venus.
Because they didn't come to professional tennis through the conventional pipeline of junior tennis, the Williams sisters have far less on-court experience than people like Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and Davenport. There is evidence, believe it or not, that they have substantial room for improvement.
But which sister has more room?
"Both of us, to be honest," Venus said. "We've been really blessed to be athletic and strong and to really have a good base technically to improve our games. As long as we're working hard and desiring to compete, the sky is the limit, I hope."
Venus, who toys with most players from the baseline, has been forcing herself to come to net more often and, recently, she has looked comfortable making volleys. Her biggest weakness is a soft second serve, which Serena has historically abused. In this year's French final, for example, Serena won 27 of 40 points on Venus' second serve.
Both are athletes of astonishing speed and power, but there is a vague sense that Venus is closer to a finished product. Serena, who lost five of her first six professional matches against Venus, has now won the past three -- all in straight sets. A victory over Venus in the championship final at the national tennis center (they are, of course, seeded first and second) would lift Serena to a field-leveling 5-5 record against her big sister.
Serena Williams certainly looked royal when she won her second consecutive Grand Slam at Wimbledon.
On a recent cover of ESPN The Magazine is Serena, striking a pose of arrival as an American Idol of immense proportion. This, Venus insisted, is nothing new.
"When we were little, she would do anything to win," Venus said. "We'd have talent competitions, like a singing contest. My older sister Isha was the judge and Serena, Lyn(drea), my other sister, and I all sang a song. Serena would sing the same song (Whitney Houston's "Saving all My Love"), and if she didn't win, she'd cry. So Isha'd always pick Serena to win the talent show. So she's always been like that. She just hates to lose."
A win at the U.S. Open would give Serena three Slam titles in one year, something Venus has never done. You definitely get the idea this is something she would like to achieve.
"I feel I can play so much better," Serena recently told ESPN The Magazine. "There are a lot of things that I should be doing that I'm not doing. I'm nowhere near my peak.
"Now comes the U.S. Open. Obviously, Venus wants to win. I'm trying to catch up with Venus. She's got four Grand Slams. I've only got three.
"I'm getting ready."
No. 1, for Serena, is a throne she could get used to. That's the way it was growing up back in Southern California.
"We'd play in the yard and (have) different adventures," Venus remembered. "Lyn would be the wizard, and I would be the warrior.
"Serena would always have to be the princess."
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com, and Greg Garber is a senior writer.