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A big win for little sisters

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002


WIMBLEDON, England -- The trouble with little sisters is this: They just don't know their place.

WIMBLEDON, England -- The trouble with little sisters is this: They just don't know their place.

They don't wait their turn. They don't respect their elders. They don't understand hierarchy.

Take Serena Williams, for instance.

Who only seems to want everything.

Talk about a sibling knowing her place. Serena stood in the middle of Centre Court, on top of the women's tennis rankings and the world, not necessarily in that order. She spun and smiled and sparkled like the tiara in her golden hair, soaking up every bit of adoration you could spare.

A few feet away, her older sister, Venus, looked on. It may have been the hardest thing an older sister had to witness since Emily Bronte passed Charlotte on the bestseller list.

This day was for younger siblings everywhere. This was for the smaller portions and the tinier rooms and the earlier bedtimes. This was for kids begging for their older brothers and sisters to slow down, to share their toys, to turn the TV channel.

This day was for Serena, who finally caught her old sister.

And passed her.

In a match that was glorious at times, Serena Williams won the Wimbledon title Saturday, beating two-time defending champion Venus 7-6 (7-4), 6-3. It was the second straight Grand Slam in which Serena has beaten Venus, the third straight match, and it accented Serena's new ranking as the No. 1 player in the world.

"At the beginning of the year, I said: "You know, I don't care what happens this year, I want to win Wimbledon,' " Serena said. "It was an extra bonus to me to win the French. I just wanted Wimbledon. I wanted to be a part of history."

Women's tennis needed a match such as this, one in which the Williamses told their critics to shut up and their competitors to step it up. They spent most of the afternoon showing why every other player might as well be ranked 20th. The gap between these two and the rest of the field never has been wider.

They hit shots beyond other players' reach, returned shots beyond other players' reach and played points beyond other players' imaginations. It was the match everyone had been waiting for, the one in which both brought their stuff. Serena would have beaten anyone. Venus would have beaten anyone else.

Sparks such as these had not happened before. When Venus and Serena played in the French Open final, it brought out the worst in both. There was discussion the Williamses' domination was bad for tennis, as if the final would be better with lesser players. There were even ugly hints the outcome might have been scripted. Amelie Mauresmo, a losing semifinalist, and John McEnroe, whose book should have been called You Can't Take Me Seriously, shared the silly notion.

When Serena and Venus took the court Saturday, the WTA Tour had the feel of a book you're halfway through and couldn't quite decide to keep reading. This was the next chapter, and if it was disappointing no one would blame you for putting it down.

Instead it was a great chapter, one that left you waiting for the next time they play. In the end, Venus' weary serving shoulder got to her, and Serena pounced on the weakness. Otherwise, they might have battled all afternoon.

Turns out this rivalry is going to be a lot of fun. In the U.S. Open that begins in August. In next year's Australian. Whenever, wherever. If they play this way, their matches will be must-see.

Their first set was magnificent. Both hit hard, crisp shots. Both ran down impossible shots. Both adjusted when shots that were winners on any other day came back at them.

"It was fun," Serena said. "It was a great match. We were really serving and returning. Venus was running down balls. I was running down a lot of balls, too. You know, it was a really good match to watch."

For Serena, it also was a good one to win. She has always been the ebullient one, letting her emotions come to the surface for all to see. Saturday, she pumped her fist, slammed down her racket, talked to herself about what potential stories she would tell her potential grandchildren if she blew this chance.

That's the difference between Serena and Venus. Serena smiles wider, laughs louder, cries easier than Venus.

From the looks of it, she plays better, too. Serena has broken through the mental barrier, the psychology that is so important in tennis. She has stood up to her sister, and as of now she stands taller.

"It's not fun losing, no matter who you lose to," Venus said. "It doesn't matter. It's not something that I'm going to get used to or try to adjust to, because I'm not one for losing often."

A year ago Serena was playing badly and having trouble containing her emotions. Today, tennis has changed. Venus, for the first time, is chasing Serena.

"I just always believe the way Venus plays at times, it's impossible to beat her," Serena said. "Sometimes, even in practice, I'm really fighting just to get the ball back. And I don't even think I'm a good enough partner for her because of the way she's playing.

"I really think if I missed a shot in that match, things could have swung either way, and she would be sitting here as the champion."

In the first set, perhaps. But in the second, once Venus' second serve slowed into the 70 mph range, Serena dictated the tempo.

Give Venus credit for this: She kept deflecting questions about her shoulder. Serena didn't.

"She didn't tell me anything," Serena said. "Venus never has an excuse for anything. I knew she was hurting beforehand. You really have to respect her not only as a person, as a player, as a sister, because not everyone would do that. She's a real champion."

Turns out, it runs in the family. If shoe companies are watching, Serena's contract with Puma is up soon.

"I'm really exciting," Serena said, grinning. "I smile a lot. I win a lot. And I'm really sexy."

In other words, a $40-million contract like the one her sister has with Reebok would be a good start. And isn't that the point? How many little sisters want what their older sister owns? How many try to dress the same way, walk the same way, act the same way? Serena has learned to win the same way.

All day, she was telling herself that. That Venus had won this twice. That it was her turn.

Until it was time to accept the trophy, that is. At which point, Venus leaned over and whispered instructions to Serena on what to do and when to curtsy.

That's the trouble with little sisters. From time to time they still need a little guidance.

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