VENUS and SERENA Reach the Pinnacle of Their Sport
By Rachel Nichols
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 7, 2002; Page A01
PARIS, June 6 -- Sisters don't often rise to become the very best in the world at the same thing, certainly not two African American sisters trying to reach the top of the sometimes silver-spoon world of tennis. Yet there were Venus and Serena Williams today, calmly winning their semifinals at the French Open to become the first sisters in the sport's history to ascend to Nos. 1 and 2 in the rankings.
It took a collective 3 hours 12 minutes to create the improbable, with Serena overcoming defending champion Jennifer Capriati, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2, and Venus taking out unseeded Argentine Clarisa Fernandez, 6-1, 6-4.
They are the first African Americans to hold the top two ranking spots, and because they will meet in Saturday's final -- Venus will hold the No. 1 spot no matter who wins -- the pair is also guaranteed a sixth major singles title to add to its collective stash.
"This makes it all the much more sweet to be number one and number two and also be in the final. We feel it's been a long way," said Venus.
How often has such a feat been accomplished, with two siblings reaching the pinnacle of their sport? Auto racing's Bobby and Al Unser Sr. Track's Al and Jackie Joyner. Boxing's Michael and Leon Spinks. More often, sports are littered with one truly great, championship-winning sibling and one pretty good one. For every Joe DiMaggio there is a Dom; for every John McEnroe, a Patrick.
And for a while, it appeared it might be that way for Venus, 22, who owns two Wimbledon crowns and a U.S. Open title, and Serena, 20, whose lone U.S. Open title came in 1999 and whose ranking has more often than not tripped out of the top five.
It has only really been over the last eight months -- starting with a win at the 2001 season-ending women's tour championships, continuing with a win over Venus in Miami in April and moving through a dominant season on the clay courts of Europe -- that Serena has been a serious contender for the very top echelon, and with her win over outgoing No. 1 Capriati today, she cemented that status.
"History is definitely being made," Serena said seriously after walking off the court, although she also laughed a bit when she explained, "You always dream of winning Slams and being number one. I never really dreamed of being number two."
She is still behind her big sister when it comes to major titles and to respect, and when the two face each other on Saturday, even their mother, Oracene, will probably be rooting for her. "I would maybe like Serena to get one, since she hasn't gotten one since '99 and she wants it so badly," said Oracene, and also Venus, Oracene thinks, "sometimes feels sorry for her."
It is this sisterly compassion that has often produced the kind of limp back-and-forth rallies that seem more suitable for basement Ping-Pong matches than the world's finest tennis courts. The only other time Venus and Serena met in a Grand Slam final, at the 2001 U.S. Open, Venus won a shaky straight-set match. Their meeting in the 2000 Wimbledon semifinal was also subpar, and while Venus holds a 5-2 advantage on her sister, also notable is that several times one sister has pulled out of a tournament when on course to play the other.
Such withdrawals have sometimes sparked rumors of collusion between the two, and even after her loss today, Capriati charged that the Williamses had reached the top rankings because "they were pretty good at planning things." She further noted that the Williams's ascension has come at a time when two other top players, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, are absent with injuries.
"I don't know if it would ever happen at all" with Davenport and Hingis playing, Capriati said, adding that "It's just kind of funny the way it's worked out sometimes, one playing, the other doesn't.
"I mean, if you really want your daughters to be number one and number two, I guess everyone would do that. . . . It would be nice to see people coming back and what really happens then."
Upon hearing Capriati's comments, Serena answered that if she played more tournaments "I'd have more points -- I would probably even be a little higher ranked than I am now." As for the injuries to the other players? "You have to take your opportunities when the time comes," she said. "You can't just sit back and let anything else happen."
Capriati herself had the chance to hold onto at least the No. 2 ranking if she had won today; instead she failed to close a key game at 6-5 in the second set, letting a surging Serena push her into an uneven tiebreak. Capriati later said she felt so much pressure on the big points that "every point means so much, you can't afford to make mistakes," while Serena said her play improved the more "I've realized that tennis isn't the end of everything."
It is for that reason, in fact, that her mother believes she and Venus have arrived where they are, why their father Richard's predictions that they would someday be the best in the world never weighed too heavily on their shoulders, why even now, as they face each other across the court and in the rankings, no wedge will come between them. Father Richard, back home in Florida, could not be reached to comment; he and Oracene have separated. Still, there clearly remains a family philosophy, just like there was always a family plan.
"They know it's just a sport. That's way they see it," Oracene said. "Just go out there, and have fun. Have fun."
CONGRATULATIONS VENUS AND SERENA