- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England Rarely has so much buildup yielded such a bust.

Everyone from Sarah Ferguson to Gladys Knight to Ernie and Leizl Els stuffed Centre Court to watch Venus and Serena Williams meet in the first singles semifinal at Wimbledon featuring sisters. It was All-Williams day at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and the only notable missing was father and coach Richard Williams, who was too emotionally involved to watch his daughters do battle. But if the matchup was extraordinarily intriguing, the play was totally uninspiring.

Venus needed just two sets to dispatch her younger sibling from the proceedings, leaving sloppy Serena on the short end of a 6-2, 7-6 (3) result and everyone else on the property feeling hoaxed by the hype.

When the match reached its fitting end on Serena's double fault, Venus immediately reverted to big sister mode, gathering up a teary, shattered Serena and ushering her off the court.

"I always take care of Serena, no matter what," said Venus, who moves on to face defending champion Lindsay Davenport in Saturday's final. "I'm the big sister, so I'm always worried about her… . I said, 'Let's go, Serena. Let's get out of here.' I didn't want [the media] to harass her or anything… . It's really bittersweet, but someone had to move on."

Though the 20-year-old Venus was protective of her 18-year-old sister after the match and careful not to seem overly excited about her victory, she did allow herself one moment of self-satisfaction immediately after reaching the tunnel to the player's dressing room.

As a cluster of reporters gathered round, Venus beamed unabashedly in the public eye for the first time in months. After all, Venus faced far more career pressure Thursday than Serena, who already has a Grand Slam title to her credit (1999 U.S. Open). Venus entered the match in danger of being reduced to the status of second-class sister.

"Sometimes I dream that I win Grand Slams, and I wake up and it's just horrible, because I haven't won any," said Venus after reaching her first Slam final since she exploded onto the professional scene at the 1997 U.S. Open [losing to Martina Hingis]. "It was difficult because the pressure was always on… . Now I have another chance, and hopefully I'll follow through."

Venus, who is seeking to become the first black woman to win a singles title at Wimbledon since Althea Gibson (1958), feels pretty good about her chances against Davenport, who beat Jelena Dokic (6-4, 6-2) in Thursday's other semi. Davenport has won nine of their 12 meetings. But one gets the feeling that now that Venus has cleared the emotional hurdle of playing Serena, she is finally ready to put her stamp on the Slams.

"I have the power, and I have the speed," Venus said. "It's tough to get through me."

Serena found it much tougher to get through Venus than most expected. Coming into the match, Serena had lost only 13 games through five rounds at Wimbledon. She was the odds-on favorite among British bookmakers, pundits and players alike even Venus admitted she expected her sister to win. But Serena played more like vintage Venus, repeatedly going for broke from the baseline. She hit more than twice as many winners as Venus (19-9), but she also committed nearly twice as many unforced errors (23-13), both her vaunted forehand and her steady serve breaking down under pressure.

Serena held her serve just once in the first set and Venus played her most patient tennis of the fortnight and simply waited for Serena to self-destruct. When Serena broke Venus to start the second set, it looked as if an epic struggle was in the works. But twice during the set, Serena failed on platinum chances to add a second break to her lead.

Ahead 3-1 and later 4-2,Serena came up short on a series of six break points, twice making unforced errors and slipping on the worn baseline portion of the court three more times. For the match, Serena converted just two of 11 break points, while Venus made good on four of her five.

Frustrated by the repeated failures, Serena lost her concentration and her one-break edge midway through the set. At one point she lost 11 straight points. The mental lapse was all Venus needed. After pulling even at 4-4 in the second set, she began dominating with her serve, peaking with a 121 mph service winner to claim a commanding 6-3 lead in the tiebreaker.

"She usually doesn't serve that well," said Serena, who pouted dismissively throughout her awkward postmatch interview. "Venus played pretty well today. She brought out her best game against me. I don't know. I guess I wasn't all that ready."

Father Richard, who raised both daughters to be tennis stars in gritty Compton, Calif., wasn't ready to deal with the emotions of the matchup either. While his daughters were dueling, he was wandering around the tiny town of Wimbledon, trying to distract himself.

"I didn't see a single point. I couldn't watch it," he said afterward. "I didn't even know the score. I didn't want to know. When I heard what happened, I felt sad for Serena. Then I heard one reporter say she had tears in her eyes, and I felt even sadder. I almost had tears in my eyes for my baby. It's been a tough day overall for me."

It was definitely a tough day for the Williams family and a somewhat disappointing one for tennis. But in the final analysis, a Venus win probably did more for her ego and the future of the sibling rivalry than a career-compromising loss would have.

"It will become less spectacular," said Venus, referring to potential future clashes. "Most of all, Serena and I have to promise ourselves to start playing solid tennis every time out, so that we can be Nos. 1 and 2 and then meet in the finals… . It wasn't fun because it was a semifinal. If it had been a final, it would have all been great fun."

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