You would think that in all my years of covering sports that I would have run into more than one notable sibling rivalry. If I did, it couldn’t have been all that notable since I don’t remember it. Only one stood out and still endures and that’s Venus and Serena Williams, who will meet Saturday for the fourth time in a Wimbledon final.
It used to be a joke, Williams vs. Williams, and one I couldn’t defend.
Here’s the first half of a column I wrote in July of 2000:
Someday they may learn how to hide their tears. Eventually they will surely downplay their emotions, possibly even resent the implication that emotions are involved. But forever it will taint their rivalry. No matter how hard they try it will infiltrate the competition, eat away at their concentration and ultimately affect their performance. And there’s not a thing Venus or Serena Williams can do about it. It is their curse as women, as sisters. The dynamic was exposed last week perhaps as never before. But never before have the Williams sisters, or any other sisters, met in an arena as large as the Wimbledon semifinals, where one inalienable fact became painfully obvious: Women are different. Yeah, yeah, big revelation there. Next we’ll be telling you that charbroiled hot dogs taste better than the boiled kind. But it’s not easy to acknowledge. Suggesting women are unlike men in any athletic competition has the potential to strip away what it took Title IX more than 25 years to achieve. It is tempting to be disappointed, maybe even angry. To look at the head-to-head series between Venus and Serena, and especially at their lackluster match last week, and wish they could somehow put aside the sister thing, to rise above what their hearts are telling them. To act, well, like men. That is what we’re talking about here, because it would be different if they were brothers. As different as parents telling their little boys to “shake hands and make up” while telling their little girls to “play nice,” the implication being that boys can still be friends after a battle but that it’s best for girls to avoid the battle in the first place. I went on to offer examples of brothers who competed against one another and wanted nothing more than to bash each other’s brains in, content and perfectly able to separate their competition on the field of play with their relationship off of it.
But not sisters.
Maggie Maleeva told me that she found it excruciating to compete against her older sister Katerina on the women’s tour.
“The way we were educated at home was to always help each other,” Maggie said, “and it was very sad when one of us lost. It just didn’t feel right to be competing.”
For years, the Williams’ competition was anything but, the sisters turning in horrendous performances against one another and once getting booed off the court in Indian Wells, Calif., after Venus withdrew with a suspicious injury.
They were accused of fixing their matches depending on which sister needed the victory more. And all through it, they looked as if they would rather be having their cartilage removed than playing against one another.
In their defense, the Williams’ were no Maleeva’s and have been dominating the sport at the highest level for more than a decade now. There simply is no precedent – for brothers or sisters – at this level of competition.
And I am happy to report that I was wrong. The Williams’ have risen above the sister thing.
In a 2008 Tier II event, they took their match to a third-set tiebreaker for the first time – perhaps because it was a Tier II event — before Serena won. But their next match was their third Wimbledon final and it was arguably the best Williams vs. Williams match ever with Venus prevailing in two sets.
Serena came back and won in two tiebreakers in the U.S. Open final last year and then Venus answered in a three-set win at the year-ending Sony Ericsson Championships. This year, they split again with two more thrilling matches in Dubai and Key Biscayne.
Their overall series record is 10-10. And while they remain each other’s biggest supporters, they have also figured out how to put that aside when they are on the court.
For the eighth time in 10 years Saturday, a Williams’ sister will be the Wimbledon champ. Venus, who has won there five times, will be trying to become the first woman to win three straight Wimbledon titles since Steffi Graf did it from 1991-’93.
Serena, a two-time Wimbledon champion, once again proved her unparalleled determination on Thursday, when she came back from match point down at 4-5 in the third set against Russian Elena Dementieva, to win in the longest women’s semifinal in history.
Some point to the Williams’ continuing domination as Exhibit A in what’s wrong with the women’s game. But one day they will also be recognized as two of the best players the game has ever seen.
They just happen to be sisters.