- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England — Behind ball-bruising power and a substantial amount of grit, the Sisters Superior are back on center stage. Centre Court, too.

Brushing aside the Belgian blip that has interrupted their joint reign at the top of the rankings, Venus and Serena Williams advanced to their second straight Wimbledon final, with Serena swamping Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-3, 6-2 and Venus pushing through pain to top Kim Clijsters 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in yesterday’s rain-delayed semifinals.

Venus aggravated an abdominal strain that has been bothering her for the last two months.

“If I’m less than 100 percent, I’ll still be out there,” she said.

The Williams sisters have met in four of the last five Grand Slam finals, all won by Serena. In last year’s Wimbledon final, Serena beat Venus, then the two-time defending champion, in straight sets.

“I’m just happy to be in the final in Wimbledon again,” Serena said. “It’s a great opportunity to have another go at the championship.”

While top-seeded Serena swept past No.3 seed Henin-Hardenne with relative ease, the ailing Venus put forth a heroic effort against No.2 Clijsters, a hard-hitting Belgian who could have seized the world’s No.1 ranking by winning the tournament.

In the third game of the first set, Venus winced and leaned over after hitting a serve, touching her racket handle to the aching stomach that forced her to withdraw from the finals of a tournament in Warsaw in early May.

Though Venus held serve and finished the game, she called for a medical timeout during the ensuing changeover, retreating to the locker room with WTA trainer Karen Davis.

“I didn’t come into the match feeling anything,” Venus said of the injury. “It became a tough match at that point.”

Venus returned to cheers and a light drizzle but was something less than her ball-blasting self. Walking with a slight hunch, clutching her midsection after an overhead smash, she was bullied along the baseline by Clijsters, who saved two break points to serve out the set.

Next came an hour-long rain delay — and a pep talk from little sis and mother Oracene Price.

“The rain saved me,” said Venus, who received treatment and a wrap from Davis . “I couldn’t calm myself down. I was so worried about the injury, I kept thinking about it, thinking, ‘Oh, my God.’

“Serena came in and talked to me. I talked to my mom and my other sisters. She said, ‘Calm down, just pray. If you’re going to play, play. If not, not.’ I just gritted my teeth and started fighting.”

Indeed. In the first game of the second set, Venus saved a break point with a grimace-inducing overhead. As the increasingly aggressive Venus racked up three consecutive breaks, the frustrated Clijsters tossed her racket to the turf.

After blasting a 108-mph ace, Venus winced — then pumped her fist.

“After a while, I decided that if I’m going to be out here, I’m still going to serve big,” Venus said. “You start to block [pain] out.”

Meanwhile, Clijsters came undone. Having collapsed against Serena in the Australian Open semis and Henin-Hardenne in the Roland Garros final, she smacked backhands wide and forehands into the tape.

Facing triple break point for the match, Clijsters struck a well-placed lob that left Venus grabbing her stomach. But Venus held on, and when it was over, her familiar post-match twirl ‘n’giggle gave way to a weary half-smile and a slow, gingerly turn.

“As a rule, I never play with pain,” Venus said. “But this time, I wanted to win.”

Of the two Williamses vs. Belgians matchups, the other semifinal held the most intrigue. Henin-Hardenne had the gall to snap Serena’s year-opening, 21-match win streak in April; she then upset the defending French Open champion in a contentious Roland Garros semifinal that saw a raucous crowd turn on Serena, who offered Henin-Hardenne a perfunctory post-match handshake before accusing her of “lying and fabricating.”

Though both players insisted they had left any and all bad feelings in Paris, their grass-court rematch opened in tense fashion. Henin-Hardenne pushed Serena to a pair of break points in the opening game — Serena saved by an ace down the middle — and Serena responded with four back-and-forth break chances of her own, winning the last with a muscular forehand pass down the line.

That exchange presaged the pattern to come, Serena’s forceful strokes overpowering Henin-Hardenne’s best efforts. The Belgian has worked tirelessly with trainer Pat Etcheberry to pack muscle onto her mighty mite frame. But 5-foot-5 is still 5-foot-5 — in other words, not enough against Serena’s 23 winners and five break points.

“[Serena] was very solid,” Henin-Hardenne said. “She served well, returned well. She was really aggressive in the point, much better than me. She was just too good today.”

On the blast-blunting red clay of Roland Garros, Henin-Hardenne was the aggressor. Transported to Wimbledon’s slick turf, she was forced to run the baseline, stabbing and scrambling to keep shots in play — all while her husband, Pierre-Yves, looked on from the stands, nervously gnawing his fingernails.

Serena took full advantage, setting up angles and torquing winners. On one particularly nasty forehand, she even lost one of her oversized loop earrings.

“I went home and worked a little harder than normal,” Serena said of her loss in Paris. “I realized there’s players out there that I have to be on my toes [against]. I can’t sit down and watch ‘Golden Girls’ all day. I have to watch some film instead sometimes.”

True to the form that has her returning to the States for an acting job the day after the tournament ends, Serena was nothing if not theatrical. Up 4-3 on serve and fighting off a Henin-Hardenne rally in the first, Serena screamed “C’mon!” after a backhand smash, then “Yes!” when Henin-Hardenne dumped a game-point shot into the net.

Upon serving out the match, Serena raised her arms in triumph, giving Henin-Hardenne a warm handshake and a pat on the shoulder before blowing stage kisses to the crowd.

Afterward, she dismissed talk of a budding rivalry.

“I think [Henin-Hardenne] is a nice player, a nice girl,” Serena said. “I have no hard feelings. I think it’s more the press want to start a rivalry. It used to be the Williams sisters and [Martina] Hingis. You guys make a mountain out of a molehill. In this case, there’s not even a molehill there.”

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