Sisters' toughest challenge is to produce an epic final
Friday 05 July 2002
Floats like a tank, stings like a wrecking ball. Venus Williams crushed Justine Henin's artistry to dust yesterday, storming ever closer to a third consecutive Wimbledon singles' title. The defending champion's 6-3, 6-2, semi-final win keeps her firmly on course to emulate Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova by completing a hat-trick in SW19.
In her path in tomorrow's final stands her sister, Serena, who yesterday disposed of France's Amelie Mauresmo 6-2, 6-1 in 55 minutes. Mauresmo will awake today, her 22nd birthday, still wondering what hit her. It was not an early present.
Serena will awake as the new world No 1. Her position will officially be confirmed when the rankings are updated on Monday, but even defeat tomorrow will not prevent her leapfrogging Venus to the top spot. If only she could do it with style, in the kind of classic encounter that their standings implore they should produce, there might be an earthly chance for the future of aesthetics in the game. Even a genuine scrap – a sweat-inducing, muscle-tearing, no holds barred ballistics show – would suffice. But the omens are not good.
Their eight previous competitive meetings have failed to set the heart racing. Venus has won five, Serena three. The most common adjectives have been anti-climactic and disappointing. Maybe it would be better to look away now, let them get on with it and then let us all know later who won. Or perhaps the All England Club could gather 14,000 somnambulists, issue them with Centre Court tickets, and allow them an hour or so of time almost guaranteed not to disrupt their dozing.
Venus was asked yesterday what it would take for her and Serena to bring out the best in each other in a match. "I don't know," she said. "I've been posed this question so many times, I just don't know." So what was the best match they had ever played. "I don't know," Venus said.
It definitely was not the French Open final last month, which saw a victory for Serena but a let-down for the spectators. It was not the US Open last year, which Venus won. And it was not the semi-final here two years ago, where Venus prevailed having convinced nobody that it had been a true sporting test. She went on to claim her first Grand Slam, an honour Serena already possessed.
The reasons why they fail to deliver against each other will probably be debated as long as they play. They are best friends. They see victory for one as victory for the other so why bother trying when you have already won? They know each so well that nothing is a surprise. They fight together against the rest of the world so why fall out on court, now? Surely it is better to save your desire for success and target at the best of the rest.
That was yesterday's story. In the first of the semi-finals Venus won so comfortably that it was hard to believe that Henin, the No 6 seed, is a supremely gifted player with the best single-handed backhand in the game. The Belgian, who lost last year's final to the same opponent, broke Williams in the opening game and then went 2-0 ahead with a marvellous reflex volley in a marathon second game that last 11 minutes and went to deuce six times.
But that merely urged Venus to attack. She won 10 of the next 11 games, winning the first set and going 4-0 ahead in the second in the process. Henin did slow her by holding serve twice but there was not ever a whiff of an upset. "I just think I was more solid than she was," Venus said. She played very well. Actually, when I got to four-love in the second set I felt I had to push more because she was playing consistently, returning my serves better, running a lot of my approach shots down."
Henin was quick to laud the victor. "She was too strong," she said. "She didn't make a lot of mistakes. She was so aggressive, so powerful, so what could I do? I started good. The beginning of the match was fine, but I had to do so many rallies to win the point and that was hard. She was simply better than me today, a lot better."
And Serena, simply, was a lot better than Mauresmo. She powered through the first set in 23 minutes, breaking in the fifth and seventh games. Mauresmo held her own serve in the third game of the second set but little else went her way. Again it was strength that overcame her, but with Serena there is also a relative deftness of touch. Occasional serves under 100mph, for example. "I haven't lost serve in three matches, so I'm really happy," Serena said.
Venus said she was happy too, especially at the prospect of her and Serena dominating Grand Slams. "I think it's good for tennis," she said. "I think it's good for Serena and I more than anything."
That remains to be seen. Another dud match and even listening to Venus list her likes and dislikes will be preferable to watching her play her sister. "I don't drink milk. I like jello and cranberries. I have a sticker collection," she told a press conference yesterday. She did not say she liked playing Serena.
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