James Lawton: Sense of doubt inevitable when Venus and Serena continue this family affair
Friday 04 July 2008
You could have been excused for forgetting that while Wimbledon squirmed over the possibility that another all-Williams women's final tomorrow might have all the competitive edge of a session of pass the parcel – or in this case the silver – in the family parlour, there was still a live contender from outside the extraordinary empire made by the eccentric Richard, father of Venus and Serena.
A second final re-match here – after two Serena victories so comfortable they inevitably provoked deep questions about the level of her sister's commitment – was, after all, almost the last word in fait accompli when Venus rarely had to move out of first gear in disposing of the slow-starting Russian Elena Dementieva.
This became even more of a certainty when Serena at first played with her Chinese opponent Zheng Jie as though she was no more threatening than a small charm on one of her more extravagant bracelets.
It was a scenario desperately low on the spontaneity and fire which we like to think is fundamental to great sport on a great stage. Women's tennis? This day, as it had been for most of the tournament, didn't come within a league of the status.
Not, that is, until Zheng began to play, in a way that sometimes her opponent does, a way that mocks the idea you can make a tennis star as you can a lawyer or a worker in porcelain.
This is the charge against the Williams sisters – and Zheng. That it had happened to the Americans in one of the unlikeliest parishes of South Central Los Angeles and for Zheng when her behemoth sports nation, gearing for the coming Olympics, decided she was suitable raw material for a medal in the sport, was the burden of perception they carried on to the Centre Court yesterday.
Yet when Zheng produced a series of quite beautiful backhand passes to stretch into a desperately tense tie-breaker in the second set, when she brought furrows of doubt to the most powerful player the women's game has ever seen, we were carried away from a set of preconceptions and a sense of doubt that will inevitably shroud the latest collision between sisters who already share 14 Grand Slam titles.
Serena clenched her fists when Zheng yielded finally to the pace and the sheer width of her opponent's talent. In her moment of triumph Venus did that funny little dance which sometimes seems not to be so much a celebration but something which has required at least a degree of choreography. And, of course, the paternal Svengali looked down, proud, no doubt, but also surely conscious – that once again awe for the brilliance of his nurturing of phenomenally successful daughters will dwindle into speculation about his powers of manipulation.
Venus reacted vehemently to suggestions from Dementieva – later retracted in a way that suggested that they may have borrowed briefly a few persuasive touches from the old KGB – that tomorrow's result will be settled by "family decision". She said she would no longer discuss the matter because it was just too ridiculous.
However, it is not quite the reaction of those who witnessed her defeats by Serena here in 2002 and 2003. Already a double winner of the great prize, she submitted so gently that the questioning was so intense on the first occasion that it brought her to tears. Had the family council ordained the result? But, of course, it is probably more complicated than this.
The Williams family have enjoyed extraordinary success yet anyone who knows from where they come, who has ever toured the relentlessly hazardous streets which five years ago claimed their elder sister Yetunde, cannot be surprised that sometimes the face of their joy is a little clouded. An intense family who inevitably have a sense that they have beaten the most extraordinary odds will no doubt always keep something of themselves hidden. It is why much of the public is no more likely to warmly embrace this final than they did the ones before.
This doesn't mean necessarily that they will believe a family accommodation will be reached. But it does suggest that fighting it out with your sister, one you have travelled along with step-by-step in arguably the most extraordinary story tennis has ever known, would be a strain on all but the most robotic of superstars.
Plainly, the Williams girls are not robots. They are wonderfully talented sportswomen who once again dominate the game which first greeted them as though they were visitors from another planet, which, of course, in many ways they were.
Now they have colonised the tennis universe they might hope for less complicated days, less tearing emotion. But perhaps nothing is so easy when the world watches to see how strenuously you will seek to destroy your sister.
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