Venus seeks to shine again
January 25 2003
By Linda Pearce
It was less than eight months ago that Oracene Williams stood with a group of journalists in the Roland Garros player restaurant and abandoned her lifelong policy of refusing to play favourites. She has five daughters, two of whom play tennis, often against each other.
But before last year's French Open final, Oracene admitted, just that one time, that she hoped Serena would win.
The youngest Williams had claimed the family's first grand slam title, three years previously at the United States Open, but the past four Williams majors had gone to Williams, V.
"This time, maybe I would like Serena to get one," Oracene told The Age, "because she hasn't got one since '99, and that's what she wants so badly."
The former Mrs Williams, who reverted to her maiden name of Price after her divorce last year, yesterday declined to be interviewed. Yet although she would almost certainly have refused to nominate a favourite for today's record fourth consecutive grand slam singles final between her daughters, events since that June day in Paris would seem to have left Venus in far greater need of maternal support.
Just as there is a fine line between coach and mother, player and daughter, winner and loser, there is also an inevitable difficulty in a situation such as this. Yet, despite the pre-match sensitivity and potential for conflict, Serena said her mother "doesn't necessarily quit altogether and say, 'I don't care'." Of course she cares - just not, usually, who wins.
So far, there have been five apiece, but Williams, S, has won the past four: in the semi-final at Miami and the finals at last year's French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Not since the 2001 US Open final, her last success, has Venus even won a set. Suddenly, Serena's childhood idol and protector needs to find a new approach against the sibling, 15 months her junior, who for so many years aped her every move.
Venus is the quieter, thoughtful, bookish sister; Serena more gregarious, feisty, aggressive. Venus has said that, even as a schoolgirl, Serena would flex her muscles at the other kids in the playground to frighten them. Lately, it has been Venus who has seemed slightly intimidated.
So much so that history beckons for Serena, whose chance is to become just the ninth woman to win each of the four grand slam titles, and the fifth to hold all four majors at once. A non-calendar slam - a Serena Slam - would emulate Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, while still leaving Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Graf as the only women to have won a true grand slam: the four majors in a calendar year.
The final is an Australian first for both sisters, although each has won four grand slam titles elsewhere.
"We are always battling our critics out there," Serena lamented yesterday.
"We never really get out to a strong start at the beginning of the year. And this is great for me because I have no points to defend. I think this is a great opportunity."
It is perhaps more urgent for Venus, who this time has enjoyed an easier passage through the draw, having spent 86 minutes less on court and lost 14 fewer games. Serena insisted before the tournament began that her sister was a certainty to reach the final and, indeed, the only set Venus has dropped was yesterday on the doubles court.
Serena, in contrast, started with a three-set struggle against Frenchwoman Emilie Loit, and almost ended with the bang of three popped blisters in Friday's semi-final against Kim Clijsters. Yet, from 1-5 down, the top seed monstered a shaky Clijsters to take the third set 7-5. Back in your place, Kimmy.
But not before two match points had come and gone, and only four women in Australian championship history have been to the brink and survived to lift the trophy. The last was Jennifer Capriati, who saved four championship points in her epic final against Martina Hingis last year.
Hingis, incidentally, has been sadly missed this year, for her touch, and variety, and candid nature, but she would not have made a dent on the Williams' progress to a final that only Clijsters - and, oddly, Loit - had the power to prevent.
Still, there has been some testiness over repeated questions about the gap between the top two and the rest in the women's game, how vast it is, and whether and how it is being bridged. Would the players prefer to be asked about family squabbles and sexual fantasies? If legitimate tennis questions are off the agenda, then what next? Certainly, we have heard enough about spangly bra straps, lovingly hand-glued.
One minor change, though, has been Venus' greater willingness to come to the net, if not always convincingly. Short balls may be less frequent against Serena than lesser opponents, but the second seed has promised that "when I have a chance, I'll try".
With a serve that reached 201 kmh against Daniela Hantuchova, there appears to be ample ammunition.
Tactics are not mentioned in the house the sisters share in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and tennis is also an apparently infrequent subject.
Venus planned to speak to her mother, and call her father, Richard, on one of Serena's many mobile phones before a match that she hoped "would be different than the last three".
The first was at Roland Garros in early June, where Oracene was asked to capture the essence of her two youngest daughters in one or two words. She declined at first, then offered the following: "Venus is an intellectual thinker," she said, "and Serena is a power-grabber."
The time has come for Venus to wrench back what she now wants so badly. And it is hard to imagine that Oracene, if only privately, would disapprove.
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