Serena stays ascendant in familiar twist to family plot

Defending champion retains her crown against sister in controversial match marred by injury
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The Independent Online

There cannot have been a more subdued reaction by a winner since Denis Law back-heeled his beloved Manchester United out of the top division of English football in 1974. Serena Williams, torn by family ties, simply walked to the net after her victory, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, and gave her older sister, Venus, a consoling hug.

It was never going to be a satisfactory final. Venus, barely even able to walk between points because of her injuries - a damaged stomach muscle, and groin and thigh strains caused by overcompensating - did as well as she could in difficult circumstances. But even in the warm-up she looked as if she was being tested to see whether she would be able to go to the medical room unaided.

Great players do not give in easily, which is why Venus gritted her teeth and overcame her injuries and Kim Clijsters, the second seed, in the semi-finals. Clijsters versus Serena, the defending champion, would have been a full-blooded match, but Venus's decision to continue the fight on Thursday diminished Saturday's finale while keeping her sister at the top of the world rankings.

The reasons why Venus contradicted the family's policy of not competing if injured are threefold: as she told the Centre Court crowd afterwards, she wanted to make sure they saw a final; then the optimistic thought, "What if?" entered her mind; and, as she confirmed in the interview room later, she did not want to attract more accusing fingers.

"Serena and I have taken a lot of flak," she said, "so I felt to take one for the team. We've been blamed for a lot of things that never even happened. I felt today to play. I think everyone's quite familiar with the history."

For those who may not be familiar with the background, the sisters - or, more precisely their father and mentor, the astonishing Richard Williams - have been involved in numerous controversies since they blossomed.

There was, for example, the Indian Wells Incident in California in 2001. Venus, due to play Serena in the semi-finals, withdrew, citing injury, only half an hour before the match was due to start. Serena, given a walkover to the final, was booed by the crowd for much of her winning final against Clijsters. Venus and Richard, who watched the final, were also subjected to verbal expressions of the crowd's displeasure. Richard accused the spectators of racism, although the consensus was that disappointment at not being able to see the sisters compete in the semi-final was the only issue.

Generally, Williams and his daughters have been treated with suspicion whenever Serena and Venus have played each other, particularly in finals. But the notion that the father decides the outcome, a conspiracy theory fuelled by his prescience about the development of his girls on the professional stage, has largely been consigned to mythology.

Venus's words on Saturday evening betrayed a deeper, more significant hurt than losing a fifth consecutive Grand Slam final against her sibling, who, in Australia in January, completed a "Serena Slam" of the four major championships.

"Today was a good effort," Venus said. "It's tough enough to go into the Wimbledon final, because you know you have to play your best tennis to win. It's a little tougher not being really sure how much you can do. I wasn't sure how far I could go. If it wasn't the Wimbledon final, the chances of me playing probably would have went down.

"It was definitely up to me. No one took away that decision al all. No one made any suggestions or put any pressure, because then it gets to be even more confusing."

Ah, there's the word: confusing. That is the crux of the media's and the public's perception of the Williams phenomenon. Marvelling at the achievements of the most powerful young women tennis has known is one thing; understanding them is more complex. Competition between sisters on a regular basis at the highest level of sport is a difficult concept to grasp.

Venus did make a good effort on Saturday - some people thought it was one the better finals the siblings have played - and it would have been hard for her to have abandoned the tournament after playing for much of it as if she was ready to regain the title, before "things took a turn", as she put it.

Those who imagined that there was an element of choreography involved can be excused, if only on the basis of the surreal nature of some of the previous encounters, not only here, but around the world. The gentle warm-up did nothing to dispel fears that Venus would not last long enough make her presence felt, and some of the points, particularly towards the end of the opening set, seemed preordained.

The one that caused most murmuring came on the second set point. Serena, having double-faulted to 0-40 and saved the first set point with a backhand drive, played a forehand as soft you would see from a beginner on a mini-tennis court, and compounded that by pushing a second forehand wide.

At other times, the rallies were impressive and some of the shot-making was breathtaking, and one sequence of reflex volleying beyond the scope any stage-fight arranger. For the first time, the duel did not adhere to the script that she who takes the first set wins.

Moreover, Venus returned and saw the match through after taking an injury time-out after losing her serve in the opening game of the final set. Even before that, Sir Alex Ferguson, watching from the Royal Box, may have been tempted to send on his super-sub, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.