by | Jul 5, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — Something’s happening here. Something big. One of those sharp turns in sports that you cannot appreciate until later. In due time — a few weeks, a few months, maybe even a year — everyone in tennis will acknowledge that the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, own the game. It will be like saying Shaquille O’Neal is the dominant player in the NBA, or Eminem sells a lot of rap records.

It will be a given, and when you say it, people will respond: “Duh! Tell us something we don’t know.” Here’s what you can tell them. Tell them the Williams era was forged on Tuesday, July 4, right here at Wimbledon.

Independence Day — in more ways than one.

For here was something never before seen in tennis: a single afternoon of spectacular family victory, on two courts from two women who happen to be both sisters and, at the moment, perhaps the two best female players in the world.

At 2 p.m., Serena Williams, the younger sister, took to the grass at Court 1 and began a systematic destruction of fellow American Lisa Raymond. Dominance? Serena would drop just two games the whole match. She smashed the ball, served cases of aces, and whipped forehands like a shortstop firing to first base.

After the final winning shot, Serena spun in the air and blew kisses to the crowd, a whirl of color, gold loop earrings, pink feathery hair bow and purple-painted fingernails. She was a diva. She was a prodigy. In a mere 41 minutes, she had gone from quarterfinalist to semifinalist.

And then, she turned into a spectator, sitting in the guest box in the adjacent Centre Court, where her older sister, Venus, was playing her quarterfinal match. The Williams family treated Wimbledon like a local Little League, where the younger brother finishes his game and runs to watch big brother on the far field.

“I heard the yell” from Court 1, Venus would later admit, “and I figured Serena had won fast. I said to myself, ‘You have to do the same.’ “

Venus acquires a taste for the jugular

It would not be that easy. Venus, after all, was playing Martina Hingis, the No. 1 player in the world. Hingis had faced a double dose of Williams before, at last year’s U.S. Open. She beat Venus in the semis, then lost to Serena in the final.

That tournament had been the defining moment for the Williams sisters. It was the first Grand Slam win of the family — and the younger sister grabbed it! This clearly vexed the older sister, and sent her into a spin during which she, according to her father, nearly retired from tennis, was injured for months, and only came back to the game in May.

Now here she was, facing the woman who put it all in motion, who had the nerve to beat her, then lose to her sister. Venus Williams often looks as if she’s exorcising ghosts when she plays. And Hingis certainly was her tormentor.

Pitted against one another, they gave the crowd incredible tennis, as good a quarterfinal as anyone can remember. It went for more than two hours. Some rallies lasted 30 hits. There were aces. There were smashes. Williams would frustrate Hingis by extending her 6-foot-1 body to return a serve that seemed unplayable. Hingis would stun Williams by stretching for a dying drop shot and scooting it over Williams’ head.

Williams took the first set, Hingis the second. The third went back and forth, each player breaking the other’s serve. But in the end, Venus surged, showing a taste for the jugular she had previously lacked. The only lopsided game was the final one; Williams won, with two volley slams and a bring-down-the-curtains ace.

“AYEEEE!” she shrieked upon victory, and her face immediately changed. The brow unwrinkled, the smile emerged. At that moment, in giddy celebration, she looked a lot like her sister.

Who, by the way, is her next opponent.

Partners in the lonely world of tennis

“I haven’t shown my best tennis yet,” Serena said afterward. This from a woman who hasn’t lost a set this Wimbledon.

“This is definitely not my best tennis,” Venus said. This from a woman who just beat the No. 1 player in the world.

Comments like that get the Williams sisters in trouble. They talk big. They talk loud. Their father, who has a rooting problem in the next round, makes things worse when he brags that his kids are pretty much smarter and stronger than anyone else on the planet. Tennis isn’t used to trash talk. It also isn’t used to players who back it up.

But that is what the Williams kids are doing. No one has played better at Wimbledon than 18-year-old Serena. And Venus, 20, in only her fourth tournament of the year, seems to grow more powerful each round. There have been other sister acts in tennis — Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena Maleeva, Barbara and Kathy Jordan — but none this good. Venus and Serena are bringing the women’s game to a punishing new height, pushing the speedometer, increasing the torque.

And — and this is crucial — they have something all the other players don’t. They have each other. Tennis is a lonely sport, where even the best can be tormented by self-doubt, bothered by the press or fellow players.

The Williams sisters seem beyond this. They practice with each other. They compliment — and criticize — each other. They giggle through interviews. They hang out with each other. Each, in a way, is the other’s best shield.

With that special weapon, you wonder who can stop them. Perhaps only one another. But as Serena said, “Playing each other in the semis only means one of us will be in the final.”

That is starting to seem unavoidable. Until now, injuries and wandering concentration have been their enemies. With that behind them, what stands in their way? Imagine having to beat both to win a tournament?

That may become the norm. And if so, keep Tuesday in mind. Two wins. Two courts. One last name. Tennis history’s most dominating sister act may well have been born on the Fourth of July.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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