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Joyless victory for Williamses

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© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- Two days before, when she erased Wimbledon top seed Martina Hingis, the grin of Venus Williams was wider than the Thames.

Joy unbridled.

Then on a Thursday flooded by unique emotions, Venus won again, rising to the final of the world's biggest tennis tournament, but this time, in a monumental occurrence, Williams struck down younger sister Serena.

Visible concern, not delight.

"I've always looked out for Serena," said Venus, who at 20 is senior by 15 months. "I do the driving here in Britain. I decide where we eat. If I sense trouble, I work to shield little sis."

Never a challenge like this.

Their father, Richard, was so nervous he didn't show for the match at Centre Court. Oracene, the mother, stayed at home in Florida. Never, in any sport, had siblings experienced such high-profile combat.

Williams family smackout.

Internally excruciating.

Venus ruled 6-2, 7-6 (7-3). Serena threatened to seize control in the second set but then crumbled, losing 11 straight points. Her heart was crushed. When the knockout was for sure, big sister couldn't smile.

Venus came to the net and wrapped a caring arm around Serena, a child more prone to showing feelings. "Strange, how the biggest tennis win of my life can have such a bitter element," big sister said. "Serena is a fierce competitor, probably more fiery than me. Losing hurts her deeply.

"Even I have difficulty totally imagining the stuff that's now churning inside of Serena. But because I know she hurts a lot, it also pains me. Outsiders keep asking how we're affected by this. I can't put it into words. Not going to even try."

Afterward, distraught Serena fumbled at trying to pack her equipment bag. Venus hustled over to help. Sistering can be like mothering. It seemed Serena was crying, but she would say, "No tears came down my cheeks."

Venus zipped the bag, then whispered, "Let's get out of here." They walked together from the most famous arena in tennis. When they could've used a parental shoulder, King Richard had taken a powder.

Williams against Williams became a hot London ticket. After a dozen days of low-level representatives in the Royal Box, there came Sarah Ferguson. A couple of rows behind Fergie, golfer Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open winner.

But no papa Williams.

Thirty minutes before Centre Court showtime, Richard Williams, who introduced Venus and Serena to tennis, exclusively coaching them and now managing their multimillion-dollar ventures, had been most visible on a Wimbledon practice court with the daughters.

Together, they warmed up. But when Venus and Serena went marching to the legendary tennis theater, Richard headed elsewhere. "I don't know where he went," Venus said after the match. "There was so much attention to this family semifinal. I guess his stomach wasn't up to it."

Twenty minutes after her defeat, Serena strained to address media questions. A ballcap was pulled tight, shadowing the eyes. Her answers were predictable and understandable.

"I expected to play better," she droned. "Venus brought her best game. I guess I wasn't ready. My disappointment is large. I will be there Saturday. I expect Venus to become the champion."

Two hours after the Williams-Williams epic, Richard did reappear, at least on television, doing a BBC interview. "I just went walking," he said, "not wanting to know how the score was going. I couldn't watch. Too traumatic. I wanted to go do some shopping but some reporters spotted me. I just hid.

"Oh, I will be there Saturday at Centre Court, sitting beside Serena. I know who will win. Venus will hold the Wimbledon trophy over her head. Someday, it will be Serena. She's just 18. This was a great education for her. Next time, in such a big match, my younger daughter will be much more mature."

Nine months ago, Serena was a New York treasure of grins, excitement and energized conversation. Before her 18th birthday, little sister won the U.S. Open, while Venus disappeared in the semis, bowing to Hingis.

Big sis coped okay.

"People think it devastated me up that Serena, my kid sister, was first in our family to win a Grand Slam," Venus said. "Due to age, everything had always happened first for me. First to enter school, first to get a car, first to become a tennis pro. But there was Serena as U.S. Open winner.

"What bothered me was my own failure against Hingis. I felt wonderful for Serena. At times, it's like she's my daughter rather than a sister. Babies in a family always get the edge. Mom and Dad would say, "Give her your ice cream, because there's not any more.' I probably used to change Serena's diapers. I've always been pretty good at giving willingly."

Thursday was an afternoon of Venus takeback. Fracturing as it was for Serena, big sister played better, earning her chance at becoming a Slam winner, moving ahead to Saturday's bout with defending champion Lindsay Davenport.

"Since I was really little," said 6-foot-1 Venus, "there have been dreams about Grand Slams, where I always won. But then I would wake up. It wouldn't be so. I still was not a champion. Now there's a chance to make it happen for real."

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