Venus assumes a lesser role... (NY Times)
Venus Assumes a Lesser Role as Serena Wins Australian Open
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY (NY Times online)
MELBOURNE, Australia, Jan. 25 — The match was longer than usual but still business as usual, and after Venus Williams had taken her now customary subservient place next to her all-conquering younger sister Serena after today's Australian Open final, she was soon standing in front of a microphone on court.
"I'm trying to be just like her," Venus said of Serena.
For longtime Williams watchers, that was a remarkable statement: the latest and most definitive sign that the tennis roles have been thoroughly reversed. As youngsters, it was Serena taking notes on Venus: emulating her game and assimilating her world-beating aspirations. But Venus is the one in need of inspiration now, and the question is whether her fourth consecutive loss to Serena in a Grand Slam singles final — this time by the score of 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-4 — will sting her pride and pique her appetite for success or resign her further to the fact that her more openly tenacious and vivacious sister has surpassed her as a champion.
Just seven months ago, Serena still had one major singles title to Venus's four, and her motivational tool at the French Open was to keep repeating those numbers to herself during tight matches. Now, Venus should be the one talking to herself.
All in a rush, Serena now has five major titles to Venus's four and has assured her place in the game's lore by becoming only the fifth woman to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once. Though it's technically not a Grand Slam because she did not win them all in the same calendar year, Serena said today that she still considers herself a Grand Slam winner.
"I think in order to win four in a row, either way, you have to be pretty serious," she said. "They're back to back. It's definitely very tough."
At the end of last year Venus started her own small business in Florida: an interior decoration firm called V Starr Interiors that has already received plenty of free publicity. But Venus insisted today that she is not yet ready to abandon tournament tennis for design.
"I'm really enthused," she said, ruling out seeking any coaching from anyone other than her parents. "It's my job. It's my main pursuit at this point, so I would like to continue with my next tournaments, and basically I'll just keep improving, go home and go practice.
"Definitely when you lose, you're more motivated. When you win, you fail to see your mistakes and probably no one can tell you anything, that kind of thing. But when you lose, you see your mistakes. They're right in your face."
For her part, Serena is well aware that it is she who is right in Venus's face at the moment. Asked much later in the players' lounge if she felt bad for Venus after beating her once again, Serena said: "Most definitely. I really wish that she could have come through today, but just as a player and as a champion, I just had to try to keep giving it my best."
Has there ever been a dynamic quite like this in sports, where a player on the verge of making history admits that she was rooting for her adversary? Where the crowd feels awkward for playing favorites? Where the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players trade blows for 2 hours 22 minutes, push each other deep into the final set, and the whole production still seems muted?
The Williamses know that they are unique and that they generate ambivalence, and that was part of the reason for Serena's tears during her abbreviated victory speech.
"I cry in movies, but outside of a movie you can't get me to cry, except for today," she said. "I was just thinking about how hard Venus and I both worked. Not everyone has always been positive about our careers. A lot of people say, `Oh, you know they are — what's the word — cocky.' There's been a lot of negative stuff, so bad that I never read anything about myself.
"All of a sudden, a million things came in my head and I started thinking about all the work I put into it, not just today and just these two weeks and not even just a year. But all those years of going out on the court, even when I didn't really want to, and all those years of my dad helping me and my mom always being there."
Her mother was in Melbourne, but her parents are divorced now. Her mother, Oracene, now has the last name Price, not Williams, but her father, Richard, certainly seems to have got this much right: His daughters are No. 1 and No. 2 in the world and Serena is the better player.
In today's match, as is usual in an all-Williams encounter, there were plenty of mistakes on both sides of the net: 106 of the 226 points played ended in unforced errors, and Venus had 52 of them, most coming off her forehand, which has become indicative of her on-court state of mind. When she is confident, she strokes through the forehand aggressively and fluidly. When she is doubting, it is a much less convincing stroke, and it was very tight and ineffective late in the two sets she lost today.
It wasn't just the forehand. Venus served for the first set at 5-4 and lost the game by making two consecutive errors from 30-30 with her usually airtight two-handed backhand. In the final set, when she served to stay in the match at 4-5, she lost the last four points on unforced errors, including a particularly ill-timed double fault at 15-30. Considering how often Serena was ripping returns off Venus's second serves, that gaffe was understandable.
"I think right now she's just probably a little mentally tougher out there," Venus said. "I think maybe that's the main thing that's dropped off in me. Usually I would just really get in there and take a match like that, normally. I'm going to work on it. I'm going to fight, and I'm going to concentrate."
Strong words, but for now, Serena appears to be the stronger personality. Venus frequently intimidates other opponents. Consider what her semifinal victim Justine Henin-Hardenne said after her straight-set loss on Thursday: "She came out with a killer look on her face, and she was into the match right away. She's a woman who exudes an enormous confidence in herself."
But Venus does not project the same regal hauteur against Serena. Nor does her shot selection. Late in the first set, with Serena serving at 4-4, deuce, Venus earned herself a high-bouncing short ball. Against just about any other player, it would be difficult to imagine Venus doing anything but gliding forward and whacking a huge forehand accompanied by a superior look. Against Serena, she decided to telegraph a drop shot instead and ended up watching Serena whack that huge forehand.
Serena seems to have less and less difficulty expressing herself on court, and today she repeatedly protested line calls and also lectured herself, bounced her racket, shrieked with frustration and generally radiated desire, even though she played, once again, far from her best tennis.
"I definitely just want to win," Serena said three hours after the match as she worked her way through a long-awaited ice cream cone in the players' lounge. "You know, when I'm on the court nowadays I just really see her, each time I play her, more and more like `This is an opponent' as opposed to `my sister.' When I come off the court and the match is over, then it goes back to `That's my sister I love with all my heart.' "
Asked if Venus's losing streak ever crossed her mind during the match, Serena answered, "No, not at all."
And it does not bode particularly well for the rest of the opposition, at home and abroad, that Serena won the Australian Open despite playing erratically here and despite a painful blister on her foot. The blister developed in Round 1 when she came within 3 points of defeat against Emilie Loit and bothered her again in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters, when she saved two match points and rallied from a 1-5 deficit in the final set.
"I've been walking on the side of my foot for two weeks and now my calf hurts; I just need a little break," Serena said, laughing as she explained.
Venus needs to get back to work on her game, and though the public might be losing interest in their rivalry because of her little sister's dominance, she still has Grand Slam plans of her own. For now, the roles remain reversed, and their mother maintains that even if they do not revert to prior form, there will be no driving a wedge between her daughters.
"It's still a sport, still a game for them," Oracene Price said. "You still have to be sisters and brothers. But that is something taught long before they got out here on the court and in front of the public. Because it probably would have been a problem if it hadn't been taught the right way: the value of family."
"For now, Roddick seems to play with the intelligence of a fence post."
Greg Couch, Chicago Sun Times